Tags: Afghanistan | Paul Ryan | kennedy | korea | vietnam

Will Congress Ever Rediscover Its Resolve?

Will Congress Ever Rediscover Its Resolve?
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., at a campaign rally for Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa., in October of 2016. (Georgesheldon/Dreamstime) 

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Tuesday, 26 June 2018 01:22 PM Current | Bio | Archive

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan recently indicated that the "last thing I want to do is bring a bill out of here that I know the president won't support," a statement with troubling implications. He seems to be saying, defying traditional constitutional doctrine, that Congress is no longer coequal with the president and the Supreme Court.

The relative importance of the three branches has naturally changed from generation to generation.

The Constitution assumed that Congress would be the most important branch, providing for it in Article I. During most of the 19th century it was the most powerful branch, so much so that we can hardly remember some of the presidents who served during that period. (John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin Pierce, for example. Fillmore? Who was Fillmore?)

Since presidents act as commander in chief of the armed forces and conduct relations with foreign countries, they became more important during the 20th century than they were when the U.S. was isolated from the rest of the world. The U.S. Supreme Court only acquired its present importance during the second half of the 20th century.

But to say that their relative importance changes doesn't mean that the three branches are no longer constitutional co-equals.

The Constitution not only allocates certain powers to each branch but also empowers it to call out the others if they get out of line. Presidents can veto legislation enacted by Congress, but Congress can override vetoes by two-thirds majorities in both houses.

Courts are implicitly assigned the power to strike down legislation or presidential actions if they are incompatible with the Constitution. And Congress is authorized to impeach, convict, and remove from office presidents, other executive branch officials, and judges.

The Senate can refuse to confirm presidential appointments to executive and judicial positions, and can prevent ratification of treaties negotiated by the president.

The constitutional checks and balances between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches have served us well. They will continue to do so provided that each branch acts in ways that are appropriate for coequal parts of the government. But if Congress can only vote on legislation that has been pre-approved by the president — as suggested by Speaker Ryan's recent statements — this throws the needed balance of powers out of whack.

A co-equal Congress does not wait to act until another branch has indicated approval. What purpose would the constitutional right of Congress to enact legislation over a president's veto serve if it deferred in this way to the executive branch?

The president would never need to veto anything if Congress acted this way.

The Speaker's dubious pronouncement about getting presidential approval before allowing Congress to vote on a proposed law was uttered in a particular context: the continuing uproar over immigration, the problems caused by President Trump's ending of DACA protection for the Dreamers, and the splitting up of parents and children on our southern border.

Mr. Ryan has used a variety of excuses to prevent the House from voting on immigration issues. He won't allow a bill supported by a bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats to come to the floor. He won't allow a vote unless the president signs off on it in advance. (But it is hard to get Mr. Trump to do this, since he seems to change his mind quite often.)

It would be better if Mr Ryan, or his successor, would begin acting like the speaker of the whole house of a coequal branch of government, not as a partisan subordinate official acting under presidential instructions.

A check on presidential powers that seems to have been forgotten is the Constitution's requirement that Congress declare war. This was last done in 1941, when the U.S. entered into World War II. But we have fought numerous major wars since then — Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq — and even more "small" ones. Although presidents, as commander-in-chief, must lead wars, it may be high time for Congress to reassert its authority, and responsibility, to give an independent evaluation of the wisdom of getting into a war in the first place.

Before he was president, John F. Kennedy wrote a book about notable members of Congress in our history, "Profiles in Courage.Congressional courage has been in short supply lately. It's time for our senators and house members to summon up the courage to restore Congress as a co-equal and responsible branch of our government.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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PaulFdeLespinasse
It's time for our senators and house members to summon up the courage to restore Congress as a co-equal and responsible branch of our government.
kennedy, korea, vietnam
848
2018-22-26
Tuesday, 26 June 2018 01:22 PM
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