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Regenerating Congress

Walter Russell Mead

There is no doubt that of the three branches of government, it is the legislature that has fallen farthest short in recent years of the role that the Founders expected and wanted it to play. So it’s encouraging that some lawmakers are thinking about a reform agenda to help invigorate Congress, as the New York Times reports:

“This is of our own making,” said Mr. Lee, pointing his finger directly at Congress for a steady ceding of power from Capitol Hill to the executive branch. “Congress has recast itself as a back-seat driver in American politics.” [. . .]

Through a new movement called the Article I Project, Mr. Lee, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas and other congressional Republicans are joining the effort to find a way for Congress to take back some of the power. [. . .]

The agenda calls for changing budget laws to give Congress more direct control over spending, eliminating the risk of default that has led to years of fiscal brinkmanship, bringing regulatory agencies under stricter congressional review and more clearly spelling out how much latitude executive agencies have in interpreting federal laws.

One of the reasons that both the judiciary and the executive branch have become so hyperactive—and, therefore, so controversial and polarizing—is that Congress is falling down on the job when it comes to the things that in our system of government only the Congress can really do: write good laws, pass responsible budgets, oversee government operations, advise and consult with the executive on law and policy. Most of the big laws Congress has passed in recent years, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, have been clunkers: the Homeland Security Act, No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act, the Affordable Care Act. Add sequestration to the mix, and you have a cavalcade of legislative failure.

There are many things wrong with the way Congress does business. It has done less to reorganize itself, to streamline and staff up for the 21st—or even the 20th—century than either of the other branches. And as Sen. Lee and his colleagues suggest in the Times article, there are increasingly strong political incentives for members to avoid making tough decisions at all costs.

Regenerating congress should be a bipartisan goal, although naturally liberals and conservatives will have different strategies and visions for what that would look like. But they should be able to agree that Congress—and Congressional debate—is meant to be the center of the political life of the United States. This is where the big questions were meant to be decided, and until Congress gets its act together, the American system will continue to underperform.

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