Why Does Congress Want to Give Up Power?

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Friday, May 5, 2006
Politicians like power. The more they have, the better they can set public agendas, create policy, help their constituents, and affect the direction of government. 

Members of Congress are politicians, and most of them like power just as much as you'd expect of someone holding high federal office. That's why they jockey for assignments to powerful committees, seek to gain seniority, and strive to rise in the leadership. If they're in the House, they often have their eye on the Senate. If they're in the Senate, they can't help but glance over at a governorship or the White House. This is the nature of the office. 

So, one of the more perplexing and important mysteries of life in Washington right now is this: Why, if they hunger after power, have members of Congress been so willing to hand it off to the executive branch? Why have they been party, over the last three or four decades, to weakening Congress as an institution? 

For while many members over the years have sought individual power on Capitol Hill, they have seemed to fall over one another to give power to the President and his Cabinet, or to get out of the way of executive-branch reaches for power. 

They have effectively ceded to the President the ability to declare war, a responsibility the Constitution unambiguously lays on Congress' shoulders. They have largely handed to the White House the power to set their legislative agenda. They have weakened their oversight of the executive branch, too often giving the President and administration officials unchecked authority to implement scores of laws without robust scrutiny. They have permitted the President to authorize clandestine surveillance of Americans in the name of national security without any review by judges. 

And now, as happens every so often, they are seriously entertaining giving the President even more power of the purse — another responsibility vested in Congress by the Constitution — by granting him an extensive line-item veto. 

I can't pretend to understand this development fully. I watched it unfold during my three decades in the U.S. House, and I've watched it accelerate since I left office in 1999, and it still perplexes me. Our nation's founders had good reasons for creating a system that balances an energetic executive branch with an equally forceful and powerful legislative branch. Why undo their work. 

Part of the reason, I believe, is quite simply that times have changed. As complex as the affairs of state must have seemed in 1789, they are exponentially more complicated now. On issues from national security to, say, the safety of our food, there is only so much that can be accomplished by passing legislation. Much of the hard work of carrying out public policy is in the implementation of policy, which is the task of the President and the executive branch, not the Congress. So to some extent, members of Congress have had no choice but to allow a vigorous executive branch to stretch its wings. 

Yet that does not entirely explain the timidity of Congress over the past few decades. There is more at play here than simply a change in the substantive nature of the federal workload. It is, in a word, politics. 

It is not easy to make Congress work well. It can be difficult and time-consuming to develop a legislative consensus among 535 representatives and senators who have many competing interests and agendas. This means that Congress works in shades of gray and in long increments of time. Many members, as a result, wonder whether Congress can be effective or efficient in dealing with the complex issues of the day. They have come to believe, perhaps because of the difficulty of legislating, that the President can do things better. 

Add to this the media's natural propensity to focus on the President — and, in this sound-bite era, to shy away from reporting on the complexities of congressional policy-making — and you get a gradual loss of confidence in Congress. 

At the same time, letting the President take the lead makes life much easier on members of Congress. When the same party controls both branches, as has been the case recently, there is a natural tendency within the congressional majority to defer to the President's wishes. 

But even without that, taking a position on a difficult issue leaves a member of Congress politically exposed and complicates his or her next election. The far easier route is to delegate the tough decisions to the President; if he handles them well, you applaud him, and if he does not, you condemn him. Either way, you don't have to take political responsibility. 

There is a severe cost to this, however, and it is measured in the erosion of the checks and balances and the constitutional structure envisioned by our founders. For our system to work, Congress needs to balance the President: If it hands him power with one hand, it needs to exert greater oversight with the other. That has not been happening. As a result, the people's body, the Congress, is a weakened institution, and is no longer playing the role of a separate and co-equal branch of government that our founders envisioned. 

(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.)