Why We Need to Restore Power to Congress

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Monday, February 21, 2005
Toward the end of January, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on the History Channel to reflect on the Bush administration's drive to centralize and expand White House power in Washington . The presidency, he argued, had been hemmed in after the Vietnam War and Watergate, and only now is it returning to its rightful prerogatives. I think there has been over time a restoration, if you will, of the power and authority of the president, he said, and suggested that this is just and proper. 

I was struck by his comments, because the Vice President and I have served in public life over much the same period of time, yet have come to opposite conclusions. It is a deeply felt conviction within this administration, and elsewhere as well, that the presidency must be protected and strengthened; the White House approaches national policy from that premise. I believe that the nation benefits from a strong presidency, and I would not want to see that office weakened. Yet, to make democracy work this power must be checked and balanced by an equally strong Congress. To me, the problem is that Congress in recent times has become too weak and timid. The president is now the de facto chief legislator he sets the policy agenda and is by far the dominant player in establishing the federal budget. If power needs bolstering anywhere in Washington, it's on Capitol Hill. 

I'll admit that the course of American history at least throughout the 20th Century and into this one is on Vice President Cheney's side, as a series of presidents have worked to bulk up White House power. On the other hand, on my side I've got the Founders. With the exception of Alexander Hamilton, they wanted Congress to be the engine of policy and of law in the United States . They devoted the first Article of the Constitution to enumerating its powers, and spent most of their time at the Federal Convention of 1787 arguing over its shape and reach. 

The reasons are straightforward. In part, they were worried about the concentration of power: in the hands of a single person, of a few people, or even of a majority. That is what our system's checks and balances were designed to thwart. But they also believed that in a representative democracy, in which the people are the only legitimate fountain of power, as James Madison put it, Congress was the avenue through which the American people could express their wishes. It was inconceivable to them that a single chief executive could represent the priorities and desires of a diverse nation. 

They were right. As power shifts from Congress to the president and the executive branch, the federal government inevitably becomes less representative. For all their faults, members of Congress understand their constituents exceedingly well. The president cannot possibly grasp their concerns as intimately or represent their needs as directly. 

Congress, at its best, brings great strength to the system. The White House and executive agencies are far less accessible to ordinary voters than Congress, and while I am well aware that Congress can too easily be swayed by powerful or monied interests, at least ordinary citizens have a chance to engage their representatives if they want. When was the last time you went to a community supper with the secretary of defense? 

Similarly, the White House simply cannot reflect the diversity of the American people. It is on Capitol Hill that the regional, class, social, ideological, racial and ethnic variety of this nation's residents come together and, more important, where they must be taken into account. It is hard work to reconcile the diverse interests that come into play around a particular issue, but that is what Congress is for, and efforts to bypass it in the name of efficiency and speed are in reality little more than shrugging off the democratic process. 

Finally, when Congress loses power, the nation loses accountability and transparency in the policy-making process. The executive branch is not open to public view. Congress is or at least, it ought to be. When Congress behaves timidly, not only does it leave the field open for the White House to put its own spin on public policy, it also means that the strongest muscle Americans have for getting at the roots of problems the congressional oversight process never gets flexed. 

There is, I must acknowledge, a weak spot in my view. It is that the Congress sometimes cannot get its act together well enough to be a strong, effective, and sustained counterbalance to the power of the presidency. That is why reforming the Congress, as difficult as that may be, is crucial. Until then, the power of the presidency will continue to grow. 

While I understand the pressures that have led us here, from wars and terrorism to the complexity of the legislative process to the natural inclination of chief executives to place a high value on their own agendas to the difficulty of getting Congress to speak with one voice, I remain puzzled by the willingness of the Congress itself to yield power (for example, its prerogative to declare war). True, Democrats and Republicans both like to bolster presidents of their own party, but they also have a responsibility under the Constitution to ensure that their own institution is at least a co-equal with the presidency in governing the country. 

Indeed, they may not remember it, but they've actually taken an oath to that effect. When a member of Congress is sworn in, he or she vows to support and defend the Constitution, a document that right up top says that all legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in Congress. It hardly seems a radical step, or even disrespectful of the presidency, for Congress to turn itself into an equal partner and start behaving as if it took those words seriously. 

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