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Blindly Following Your Team Captain

Former Republican Congressman, founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation, and national chairman of the American Conservative Union, Mickey Edwards is the author of Reclaiming Conservatism: How A Great American Political Movement Got Lost- and How It Can Find It Way Back. He attended the State of the Union address Monday night and shared his reaction with us yesterday. Today Edwards wonders why the Republican members of Congress were so enthusiastic at the SOTU Monday. Read Edwards other OUPblog posts here.

For Republican members of Congress, the man who delivered a State of the Union speech Monday night was not merely a President of the United States – the head of one of the other branches of the federal government – but, more importantly, he was their team captain.

Presidents, of course, are not in charge. When Dana Milbank, a columnist for the Washington Post, described one of George W. Bush’s foreign trips as an occasion for the President to step out of his role as head of government to perform edwards.jpgin his other role as head of state, I pointed out that while he is certainly the head of state – he gets all the formal salutes and twelve-course dinners – he is not the head of government but merely the head of one of three separate and completely equal branches. In fact, when Presidents address the Congress at the beginning of each year, it is not because they are charged with delivering their orders to subordinates but because the Constitution requires Presidents – the nation’s administrators – to report to the people in charge of writing the laws and setting national tax policy and spending priorities. That’s why the heads of the Senate and House sit above the President and he begins the constitutionally-mandated process of reporting by handing in his report to the people he’s reporting to. Hard to believe, what with the zillion-car motorcade, ritualistic applause, and the tendency of Presidents to lecture their congressional audiences, but that’s how the process was designed.

In his speech, the President not only vowed to veto bills containing congressional earmarks (that’s his right; the veto pen is a mighty sword) but also said that he would instruct federal bureaus and agencies to ignore “earmark” language not submitted to a vote of the full House or Senate. As though he had the authority to dictate to the legislative branch what form it must follow in creating law. Republican members of Congress, having just been told the President would decide which of their instructions he would choose to follow, applauded. Just as they had done in previous years when he demanded a line-item veto, which is an unconstitutional usurpation of a power deliberately placed in the hands of the people themselves, through their representatives.

There is an argument for doing away with the way earmarks are now too often established – too much secrecy, too little examination. Those failings can be addressed by Congress by requiring transparency. But the Executive Branch’s decisions as to which programs to fund are often no more competitive, no more transparent, and no more free of political influence than the legislative decisions the Administration derides. As Scott Lilly, of the Center for American Progress, argues, “It is clear all of the politicians with authority over government spending are not exclusively members of the legislative branch. The executive branch contains not only the nation’s top politician, but much of his former campaign staff . . . the amounts they control and the discretion they have in using those funds greatly overshadow the few crumbs redirected by the Congress.”

Don’t expect Republicans in Congress to demand reform in the Executive Branch, however, not when their loyalty seems less to the Constitution than to their team captain.

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