Congress Should Use Its Muscles

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Friday, September 8, 2006
For those who pay attention to power and its uses, it has been clear for some time that the White House is engaged in an unprecedented bid to expand the reach of the executive branch and to alter the "balance of powers" on which our system has long depended. The Bush administration has pushed to the limit the doctrine of the inherent powers of the President to take actions without the involvement of Congress. 

Curiously, it has not acted alone. Congress has been a willing partner in this assertion of presidential power at its own — and the American people's — expense. So, while it is encouraging that Congress in recent months has finally shown some signs of pushing back and placing limits on executive authority, we must hope it sees fit to do more. 

These stirrings of congressional will have often come when the wind of popular opinion has been blowing the same way. 

So, for instance, Congress reacted strongly to the administration's approval of a business deal that would have given ownership of major U.S. ports to a Dubai holding company. And in the wake of revelations about administration-approved domestic spying, the intelligence committees have undertaken somewhat more robust oversight of intelligence efforts. 

Similarly, revelations about the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq strengthened congressional resolve to look closely at administration policies regarding torture. 

The House has also been willing on occasion to stake out territory that clearly puts it at odds with the White House, as it has done recently on immigration legislation and, for better or worse, on the FBI's search of Rep. William Jefferson's office. Of course, with the President's poll ratings so low, it is much easier to show some backbone. 

Yet, while it is notable that Congress is showing a measure of independence, there is still a lot that Congress is not doing. It is not looking with a critical eye at the President's budget proposals or calling his spending priorities into serious question. It is not issuing subpoenas to administration officials in an effort to explore decisions — from the prosecution of the Iraq War to the political manipulation of basic science — that many Americans find troubling. 

It is not holding systematic, robust oversight hearings. It is not calling in agency heads, rigorously questioning them, and suggesting that their funding could suffer if they continue to treat legislators as mere nuisances. 

A Congress that was serious about exercising its prerogatives would have administration officials on Capitol Hill every day, asking tough questions on all kinds of topics, grilling them on their policy decisions and investigating how they'd chosen to implement federal programs. 

For the truth is, Congress has long been supine in the face of presidential assertions of authority and denial of information, making the vision of government laid out by our Founders barely recognizable today. 

It has by and large stood by as the Bush administration has insisted on formulating public policy with minimal congressional input; on restricting access to presidential papers; on increasing the number of classified documents and decreasing the number declassified; on setting aside or bypassing laws and treaties; on ignoring Congress in developing policy on how to treat detainees or conduct national surveillance programs or secretly gather banking records; on using "signing statements" to do an end run around congressional intent; and on sometimes refusing to allow presidential aides to testify before Congress. 

Let's be clear. I am not suggesting that the presidency should be weakened; rather, that Congress should be strengthened. 

The theory of government on which our Constitution rests is that the needs of a democratic society are best served when there is tension and strong interaction between the two policy-making branches of government. When Congress and the presidency are both vigorous, assertive institutions that are constantly testing each other, the policy our government produces and its accountability to the people it serves are more robust. 

As John Adams wrote in 1787 of what were to become the House, the Senate and the presidency, "Without three divisions of power, stationed to watch each other, and compare each other's conduct with the laws, it will be impossible that the laws should at all times preserve their authority and govern all men." 

Congress has shown some stirrings of self-respect, and that is positive. But to serve the American people — to ensure that we are, indeed, a nation of laws — it needs to forget its timidity and be far more assertive. This would not be disrespectful of the President. Rather, it would be living up to the expectations of the men who created our government. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)