Published November 16, 2016
Donald Trump is going to be America’s next president. This has a lot of people very scared — myself included. Many of Trump’s campaign promises, if fulfilled, could be calamitous (full-blown global trade war), immoral (religious discrimination), or both (war crimes).
Indeed, this seems like a disaster. But in that disaster lies an opportunity to fix the single biggest problem at the heart of American government.
In the Constitution, Congress is the first body mentioned in Article I. There’s a reason for this. The legislative branch is supposed to be the most important of the three branches of government. Not the executive branch or the judicial branch, but the House and the Senate. The president is supposed to apply the laws Congress makes, not be a legislator in his or her own right.
But for decades now, the executive branch of America’s political system has become more and more powerful. This happened largely at the expense of the legislative branch, because Congress has ceded the initiative, not only to the White House, but to countless administrative and regulatory bodies. More and more of our laws are being created not by our elected officials, but by unaccountable agencies. And Congress enjoys passing the buck: Instead of legislating tough choices, it simply gives the executive the authority to decide things by executive order. Meanwhile, the presidency’s powers, which now include wide-ranging surveillance, war-making, and even assassination powers, have grown apace.
It’s time for Congress to take back the initiative, both by pruning the president’s powers and by getting back to driving the political agenda. Trump’s presidency provides a unique opportunity to do just that.
It’s no secret that Trump is a highly controversial political figure. And not just with liberals. The Republican Party is in a civil war over him and the movement he represents. That war may be in a momentary truce, but trust me, it is ongoing, and it will flare up again. In other words, Trump has enemies on both sides of the aisle. This actually provides an opportunity for the momentous obstacle of partisanship to be partially removed.
On the Democratic side, the reason for pushing reforms to curb the executive’s power is obvious. It will frustrate an agenda they oppose, and could help control a man they revile. On the flip side, establishment Republicans could try to contain Trump by running the country from Congress.
Trump’s presidency will also have immense powers. As such, Trump offers an opportunity for a bipartisan coalition to rein in executive power for the first time since Watergate, and for Congress to become the driving force for policy once more.
Already, we’re seeing movement in the right direction. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has a project called Article One that uses legal initiatives to check the power of Congress. It includes initiatives such as reclaiming Congress’ power of the purse to set executive priorities, and reasserting Congressional authority over regulatory bodies. One popular reform that has already passed the House is the REINS Act, which would mandate that every executive rule scored with a cost to the economy in excess of $100 million should get a vote in Congress. Republicans should unite with Democrats behind these kinds of ideas, as well as those that devolve power from the federal government to the states.
Trump owes at least some of his success to his ability to channel the economic discontent of the Americans who have been left behind by globalization, social and economic liberalism, and cosmopolitanism — and who are disgusted by their elites. It could be argued that process issues and the Constitution might seem far removed from these voters’ legitimate, important, and pressing bread-and-butter concerns.
But I would argue that bringing Congress back to its constitutional role is actually dead-on for their concerns. One serious pain point of the forgotten Americans is that their political elites are unaccountable. The growth of Washington at the expense of the states has been a major source of this problem. Congress keeps passing the buck to the president, who is only voted on every four years, and (especially) to administrative regulatory bodies, which are never voted on.
Accountability is the flip side of responsibility. Voters can’t hold their legislators accountable because they’ve stopped being responsible for policy. Rebalancing the branches wouldn’t just solve abstruse concerns about process and Constitutional law, it would also make government more accountable in a way that would make our political culture healthier and go at least some way toward healing our current rift between the people and their elites.
Trump seems to believe that what made America great is wealth and power. But what made America great is its unique system of limited, divided, constitutional government. Thanks to Trump, and perhaps despite him, Republicans and Democrats may be able to restore America to its place of greatness.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.