The uproar over Pres. Trump’s emergency declaration to raise money for his border wall has both Republicans and Democrats in Congress bemoaning executive power and the diminution of the legislative branch of the federal government.
Republicans said similar things about Pres. Obama’s many executive orders, while Democrats, displaying a double standard, were fine with Obama usurping congressional power.
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson recently said that Congress has become the weakest of the three branches of the federal government. He said Congress “is really diminished” and advocated “taking back that congressional authority.”
I believe Johnson and other members of Congress whining about congressional feebleness are exactly right. The concentration of power in the executive branch and in the courts is unhealthy.
But Congress needs simply to look in the mirror to find who to blame for this problem. It’s not the president. It’s not the courts. It’s Congress itself. Congress has become a weakling because it is dysfunctional and gridlocked. It gets kicked around because it is ineffectual. It can’t solve the big problems facing the nation.
And the other branches of government are naturally filling the power vacuum.
The nation’s founders fully intended the three branches of government to compete with each other. They thought that would prevent any one branch from gaining too much power. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” wrote James Madison in Federalist 51.
But the only way Congress can be powerful is to make policy. Congress could easily take control of immigration – a quintessential federal issue. If Congress doesn’t like what the president or the courts are doing on immigration, it can pass comprehensive immigration reform that solves the ridiculous problems at the border (like catch and release), provide for proper legal immigration, and prevent illegal immigration.
But Congress can’t act. With Congress operating like the bar scene in Star Wars, who can blame the president and the courts from taking over the federal government?
In a divided Congress, the only way Congress can take meaningful action on big issues is to compromise. But with members of Congress more concerned about re-election than anything else, they pander to their bases and nothing gets done on the tough issues.
Congress may just overturn Trump’s emergency declaration. But it will be a mostly meaningless gesture if Congress can’t pass meaningful immigration reform itself. If Congress really wants to reclaim its place in the American system of government, it needs to make policy — tackle the big issues facing the country.