Congress vs. The White House: There’s Supposed to be a Constant Battle

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This piece in the Boston Globe today is well worth spending some time reading and thinking through.
To share the beginning of the article:

In 1973 the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published a book called The Imperial Presidency, tracing the way in which the White House had, over the course of American history, grabbed more and more power until it threatened to overwhelm the rest of the federal government.
Then-president Richard Nixon-who carried out a secret bombing campaign of Cambodia, eavesdropped on his domestic rivals, and impounded federal funds that Congress had earmarked for programs he didn’t like-was to Schlesinger only the latest and most brazen example.
President George W. Bush, say his Democratic critics (and even a few Republicans), has demonstrated Caesar-like proclivities of his own. The past week’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. reflected increasing concerns in Congress that Bush is pushing the envelope of presidential power like few before him. He has approved warrantless surveillance of Americans by the National Security Agency, issued a “signing statement” reserving the right to waive a congressionally mandated ban on torture, and attempted to game the federal courts in cases involving terror detainees.
With John Roberts, a former White House lawyer known for an expansive view of presidential prerogative, now presiding as chief justice, the widely-predicted confirmation of Alito, whose record suggests a similar bent, could well make the Supreme Court even more accommodating of executive power.
Yet the branch of government Schlesinger exhorted to resist the executive’s slow-motion coup was not the Supreme Court. It was Congress. And although throughout most of Bush’s presidency the legislative branch has been, in the words of Thomas Mann, a government scholar at the Brookings Institution, “remarkably weak and supine,” there are signs that the president’s assertions of power have finally roused the nation’s legislature. The same day that it overwhelmingly approved the defense bill including the anti-torture amendment, Congress refused to give the administration its desired extension of the USA Patriot Act. And several members of Congress, most importantly Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, have called for hearings on the NSA’s surveillance program.
But even as Congress bestirs itself to seek limits on the president’s power, the question remains: How much can it do? Over the last half century, historians and political scientists observe, Congress’s clout has waned as dramatically as the executive’s has grown, especially in national security matters. And Congress itself is largely to blame.
Instead of jealously guarding its institutional prerogatives, Congress has been complicit in the diminution of its powers, in a way that seems to run counter to the very logic of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances. Whether Congress manages to impose its power over the executive branch, then, depends on whether the body has the will to reverse its own history.

This is an interesting article and poses questions not unlike others that have been pursued in TWN posts. However, while I believe that Congress has been complicit in its own decline, the Executive Branch’s surge in relative power is not explainable just by the collapse and corruption of Congressional leadership.
I do believe that Tom DeLay and his machine took Washingtonian structual corruption to new heights, but the fact is that Bush, Cheney, Rove, Libby, Gonzales, and other close cronies also warped the way the administration itself works. They cut out dissent inside the administration.
One of the most disturbing but rarely acknowledged aspects of the NSA warrantless wiretap scandal is that it was not the FISA court approvals that were the problem for the administration. Bush’s problem was holding his own team together on the requests. The Deputy Attorney General thought they were wrong and perhaps illegal. State got cut out of the loop. Some in NSA were outraged. Even John Ashcroft did not want to sign off on the order.
Bush avoided the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court because the Executive Branch was not cohesive on this issue. Checks and balances usually occur between branches of government, with civil society as an added check on the behavior and performance of government. However, the NSA case is one in which checks and balances external and internal to the Executive Branch failed to work — because of the perversion of the system of law and process that Bush and his team engineered.
We are four and a half years late in rectifying the problem of an out of control presidency. Congress, the media, NGOs, and others engaged in our democratic system must forcefully knock back the expansive powers of a wannabe monarchy.
The White House will not self correct; it’s not designed to. But it’s absolutely essential that the White House be curtailed.

– Steve Clemons
Ed. Note: Thanks to GS for sending this piece.