If there is a single overriding narrative about the current Congress, the institution America’s founders considered the first and most important branch of government, it is that partisan warfare has rendered it almost impossible for Republicans and Democrats to agree on anything, and especially on any question of significance.
This bleak assessment is generally correct, extending to the realms of economics (tariffs, spending priorities, and tax policy), security (border permeability and guns) and most other items that dominate the daily news. The partisan division extends, in fact, to almost all facets of American governance.
But not all. In fact, the bigger story, and the most impactful, is where the parties have come together with disastrous effect. Arthur Schlesinger’s famous critique of an emerging “imperial presidency” succinctly named a phenomenon that has grown exponentially over decades – the transformation of American government from one dominated by the peoples’ representatives in Congress (the branch to which most major government authority had been assigned) to an enterprise increasingly directed by an almost king-like presidency alternating between directing and ignoring an enfeebled national legislature.
It is generally assumed that this shift is the result of a ruthless presidential power grab in which chief executives brutally wrested decision-making authority from Capitol Hill. In fact, however, the growth of presidential power was the result of repeated instances of the voluntary abdication by Congress of its constitutional obligations. And this abandonment by Congress of its most fundamental duties was entirely bipartisan.
Recent political battles have focused attention on presidential actions regarding immigration and refugee policy and the imposition of tariffs on products imported from countries ranging from perceived adversaries (China) to long-standing allies (Canada). Members of Congress, the branch of government with constitutional authority in these policy realms, learned about these policy shifts the same way we all did: by reading about them in news bulletins. But the president was merely using powers the Congress had given him to use in the case of a national security emergency (with the president being the sole decider as to what constitutes an emergency.
To some extent – many observers would say a very large extent – the grievances that have fueled voter anger in industrial states are the result of international trade agreements that have proved harmful to many of America’s blue-collar workers. The Constitution gives Congress absolute authority over the nation’s engagement in international commerce but in response to presidential urging, the Congress agreed to consider trade agreements under a fast track procedure that limits the ability of voters’ representatives to amend the terms agreed to by the White House. Previously, members of Congress could insist on removing provisions that might negatively affect American workers but that ability is now largely gone, willingly surrendered by Congress.
Perhaps the single most important feature of the United States Constitution is the placing in Congress of absolute authority to determine when and where and under what conditions the United States will go to war. In one of the worst decisions in American history, a bipartisan Congress passed a War Powers Act that allows a president to initiate military conflict without congressional approval, reserving the right of Congress to step in after the fact to order an end to the engagement. By that time, however, Americans may have died in combat and those who remain will require the means to survive. Wars, once started, are difficult to bring to a rapid close. The ability of American citizens to determine what they are willing to die for, what they are willing to send sons and daughters to die for, has been delegated to a single person.
It’s true that on most daily concerns, even very important concerns, partisanship has proven crippling to America’s ability to govern itself. But on the very shape of government, on where the most fundamental powers reside, there has been a surprisingly high amount of bipartisan agreement. And not for the better.
Featured image credit: “Our nation’s capital” by Louis Velazquez. CC0 via Unsplash.