Congress opts out

by on May 10, 2009 at 7:41 am in Political Science | Permalink

Here is my latest column.  Excerpt:

It’s not that anyone is behaving illegally or unconstitutionally,
but rather that Congress seems to want to be circumvented and to
delegate more power to the executive branch as well as to the Fed, at
least temporarily.

While Congressional leaders are consulted on
the major policies, Congress is keeping its distance, perhaps to
minimize voter outrage. This way, Congress can claim credit if a
recovery comes, but deny responsibility if the price tag ends up higher
than advertised or if banks seem to be receiving unfair benefits from
the government.

The Fed and the FDIC have become the major tools for enhancing executive power and working around Congress:

The traditional division of labor among policy makers was that the Fed
determined the quantity of money in the economy – it set monetary
policy – and Congress decided precise government expenditures – it
handled fiscal policy. These new programs blur that distinction and, in
essence, the Fed is running some fiscal policy.

The FDIC issues guarantees under the expectation that Congress will have to ratify them ex post but ex ante the executive branch is calling the shots.

Is this all good or bad?  For any single choice, it is probably good.  Congress does not, in general, improve the quality of economic policy, relative to the executive branch.  But it is also a kind of deficit spending on the quality of future governance.  The more Congress is accustomed to being allowed to punt, the worse Congress will become in the longer run.  The executive branch will overreach more and also voters will apply successively more cynical standards to evaluating Congress, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

To put it more concretely, this Congress shies away from accepting responsibility for the various bailouts, yet we think it will somehow solve far tougher problems?  I, for one, am worried.

1 david May 10, 2009 at 9:00 am

Anybody want to suggest a rational-choice model for Senators/Representatives that has this shift of power as the solution?

2 joan May 10, 2009 at 10:04 am

This is a small thing when compared to giving up the decision about going to war to the president.

3 Kent Guida May 10, 2009 at 11:51 am

Great column. You put your finger on a problem that has been with us since the beginning of the progressive era, when it became a virtue to turn over government to experts. Today’s version is just the latest chapter in Congress’s giving away its power.

Locke was the first to point out the illegitimacy and the danger of this: “The legislative cannot transfer the power of making laws to any other hands. For it being but a delegated power of the people, they who have it cannot pass it over to others….The power of the legislative being derived from the people by a voluntary grant and institution, can be no other, than what that positive grant conveyed, which being only to make laws, and not to make legislators, and the legislative can have no power to transfer their authority of making laws, and place it in other hands.”

The Federalists were well aware of this, but unfortunately relied primarily on the institutional self-regard of Congress to prevent it, backed up by federalism and the popular view that it was simply illegitimate. Unfortunately, their constitution has proved inadequate in this regard, and none of those restraints could stand up to progressivism.

You are right, this is very dangerous, in ways we have not begun to appreciate, but I do not agree that “on any single policy, the abdication of congressional responsibility may not be a problem. Sometimes it is good to let the technocrats have their way.” That is the line of thinking that has gotten us into the present fix, which has been building for a century. It happened one policy at a time.

4 Brandon May 10, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Enjoyed the column, but maybe a bit fast to assure that nothing unconstitutional is happening here. The vested powers are “vested” for a reason.

5 chakira May 10, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Thank you so much for writing this valuable and wonderful observation which very much mirrors my own thought. Perhaps we can add that the Congress has gone from Constitutional Democracy to Scholastic Theology. Simply put, it has become adept at questions once asked in the Neo-aristotelian schools of the Middle Ages. The question is not: what is the budget? should we declare war? Rather, can we delegate our war powers away, as part of those war powers? In my opinion this may be logically possible but it shreds the possibility of deliberative (for what its worth) democracy (do we need stare quotes at this late date?). That congress shows its theo-logical origins is perhaps logical. Yet the heuristic impulse to empower the King with all the wonderful decisionmaking capacity in the Universe becomes strangely aporetic as time goes on and it turns out that (if history is any indication) one person cannot actually take the place of God, and the executive stands on the precipice of vertiginous emptiness in a world definitively irredeemable. In any case, the heuristic mediality of the Congress function was meant to prevent this, even if by crude means which sometimes are logically inconsistent. This is the case of all media, and we cut out the middleman at our own risk, as well as even greater risk to the fellow who takes the job of the middle and top and bottom man, whose endless assassinations will make fine drama after the fact. Let us not forget the origins of our democracy in a power grab for the imperfect, nascent bourgouise political sphere, and thus the danger of its abrogation in a moment of that sphere’s suicidal self abnegation.

6 Cyrus May 10, 2009 at 3:42 pm

It’s OK to hire an agent to perform a task you don’t understand enough to do well, provided you understand it well enough to evaluate the agent’s performance. But if you have to rely on the agent’s self-assessment to know whether the job was done well, you’re just setting yourself up to be taken advantage of.

Congress, however, has a macro-out that the micro-consumer seeking auto, home, or medical repairs does not. If they find their mandate has become too complex to manage well, they can always return some of it to the public.

7 Rafi May 11, 2009 at 9:04 am

You can make an argument that what is going on is constitutional because of decisions made by the Supreme Court over the years, especially ones regarding the commerce clause. Nevertheless, if you do the history on the commerce clause you’ll see that in terms of the original intent of the Framers what is going on is completely unconstitutional and has been for some time. As DougG said, all the bailouts, subsidies, king-like power of the executive branch… none of that is in the constitution.

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