Congress now in impeachment spotlight, but its powers fade

A funny thing happened to the House on its way to impeachment.  It got lost.

It happened a long time ago.  Despite the unusual focus of impeachment on the role of Congress, it highlights just how irrelevant the national legislature has otherwise become.

In the congressional conflict with President Trump, its leaders stress that the House and Senate were placed in Article I of the Constitution for a reason.  In a government with “three co-equal” branches, the legislative branch is really most important.

The House majority disputes Trump’s objections to impeachment, reminding him that the Constitution gives the House “the sole power of impeachment.”  This congressional power provides no role for the president.

In reality, among the three branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial – Congress may have the least power.  Compared with the executive, it obviously comes in second.

Shedding oppression by the British king, the drafters of the Constitution sought to ensure control of the federal government would not be exercised by one person but by legislators representing the states and the people.  Hence, Article I.

But they were overly optimistic.  Three of the country’s greatest presidents would deal with challenges that increased their powers.  Washington was empowered to create the federal executive.  Lincoln led the country to save the Union.  F.D. Roosevelt rallied the nation to reform the failing economy and win a world war.

Even without those events, central control of the military and foreign affairs in the world’s major power made a strong executive inevitable.

The country spread across a continent.  At the same time, managing public affairs became more complex as government dealt with matters ranging from race relations to railroads.

From the outset, Congress delegated to the president powers that were meant to be under its control.  The task of governing became so complex that authority came to be exercised by executive branch officials and regulators.

Gradually, Congress accepted that the president should be granted broad authority because either the chief executive could respond rapidly to new problems or members of Congress could avoid responsibility for necessary but unpopular policies.  As impeachment reveals, Congress is left with little ability to control presidential action.

In recent decades, Congress has also allowed the Supreme Court to make legislative decisions that were its responsibility.  Because the legislative body either passes unclear and conditional laws or doesn’t pass them at all, the Court often fills the gap.

Take the abortion issue as an example.  While federal law bans spending for abortions, it fails to define rights or limits, if any, for the procedure.  In filling this gap, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe v. Wade.  The matter was settled, perhaps tentatively, by nine justices, not by the elected Congress.

Strict party allegiance and the resulting partisanship promote executive power.  Parties in Congress back, almost blindly, presidents of their own party.

Senate Majority Leader McConnell won’t allow votes on major bills unless he is assured of White House support.  Ceding all power to the president, the Senate has given up the role of an independent legislature.

What about Maine?  Gov. Paul LePage set the record for vetoes, even rejecting bills passed with huge majorities or even unanimously.  After the Legislature received a LePage veto, Republicans would often reverse their previous support for the bill and sustain their governor’s position to kill it.

Public opinion rates Congress even less favorably than the president.  Compared with the president, members of Congress, whose prime focus is gaining re-election, seem to take little action.  In part, that appearance results from the media focus on the president, easier to cover than Congress.

During the unusual House exercise of its unique power of impeachment, the favorability rating of Congress has increased.  While that rating gain may be heavily partisan, it recognizes a rare moment of congressional action.  The people probably want more.

To recover power, Congress could pass simple and unconditional legislative directives, not leaving it to the executive branch to fill in the blanks.  It should decide tough issues and not leave them to the courts.  Both take hard work and the courage to resist special interests.

By stripping power from congressional leaders, members would be less straitjacketed by party discipline.  Beginning in 1994, party discipline became a major cause of extreme partisanship.  And, by giving leaders complete power to set the agenda, members allow them, like the president, to weaken the legislative branch.

Voters elect legislators, not political robots.  Members should focus more on exercising their legislative powers and worry less about their permanent campaigning for re-election.


Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.