“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” With those words, written more than 200 years ago, the authors of the Federalist Papers explained the most important safeguard of the American constitutional system. They then added this promise: “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” Congress enacts laws, appropriates funds, confirms the president’s appointees. Congress can subpoena records, question officials, and even impeach them. Congress can protect the American system from an overbearing president.
But will it?
As politics has become polarized, Congress has increasingly become a check only on presidents of the opposite party. Recent presidents enjoying a same-party majority in Congress—Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010, George W. Bush from 2003 through 2006—usually got their way. And congressional oversight might well be performed even less diligently during the Trump administration.
Frum actually understates the case that Congress is weakening. The decline of the Legislative branch has been going on for at least a century.
It takes a long time to unravel a system of government like the one the Founders created. “Erosion” is a fitting way to describe it–it’s occurred slowly, over generations. But there is one entity that has consistently worked over the decades to reduce the power of the legislature.
That entity is… the United States Congress.
“Wait, what?” you say. “Congress is taking power away from itself? Why would it do that?”
Well, it’s a long story. And, as you probably suspected, it all began with the increasing costs of farming in the late 1800s.
On one of the C-Spans the other night, they were showing Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech “A Time For Choosing”, which he gave in support of Barry Goldwater. You can see that speech on YouTube here.
It is pretty much the standard Republican fare in terms of content, but Reagan was clearly a far more charismatic and persuasive speaker than the Republicans of today. I hate his line about the hungry being on a diet–it’s that sort of thing that got the Republicans branded as greedy and heartless. I don’t know how the Goldwater campaign reacted to this, but I’m assuming their position on poverty was not “it’s all in your imagination”.
But what is really interesting to me about it isn’t so much the content of the speech, but the style. I don’t think people would stand for one long speech, and moreover one filled with a lot of references to statistics and numbers. I don’t know how accurate the numbers he gives are, but it seems to me this speech contains a lot more precise statistics than a modern speech.
To be fair, I think Reagan was a major beneficiary of the style over substance approach to politics, and probably this speech was shallow by the standards of the time. But my hypothesis is that a shallow 1964 political speech has more substance than an in-depth 2014 political speech.
I remember in 2008, then-Senator Obama’s campaign did a 30 minute “infomercial” on the networks a week or so before the election. It was well-made, but more like a documentary, with stock footage and interviews and such. I think the PR people for Obama’s campaign wouldn’t have dared to spend the whole half-hour on one guy giving a talk–that’s dull television.
To be absolutely clear, so nobody misunderstands, I’m not saying Obama had less substance than Reagan did–I’m saying I suspect the audiences of 2008 have much shorter attention spans than the audiences of 1964. But even that may be false, I guess–after all, Goldwater lost, although probably that had more to do with his loose-cannon attitude than anything else.
If you follow politics, you probably hear a lot of people saying that the central debate in American politics is about the size of government.
Those people are wrong.
Most of them are not lying, however; they are just repeating something they heard from someone else. And they even have some evidence for the claim. After all, the Democrats tend to favor expanding Federal social programs, whereas Republicans favor cutting these programs.
But the tip-off that this really is not the central debate is that sometimes these positions get reversed. For example, the Republicans generally support increasing military spending, whereas Democrats favor cutting it. As fielding an army is one of the oldest and most basic functions of government, this clearly shows that the divide is a bit more complex than just some random debate over what percentage of GDP the Federal government outlays should comprise.
“Size of Government” is a vague concept anyway. What does it mean? Government outlays as a percentage of GDP? Number of people employed by the government? Even then, it’s not like “government” is some monolithic entity–is it spending most of its money on education or on the military, for example?
Then there are those who say the debate is over the “role of government”. This is so vague that you can’t really call it a lie, but you also cannot call it terribly useful. The role of government is to govern–the questions are, what kind of society shall it govern, and how shall it govern it?