Is Congress becoming worse?

In fundamental ways that have gone largely unrecognized, Congress has become less vigilant, less proud and protective of its own prerogatives, and less important to the conduct of American government than at any time in decades. “Congress has abdicated much of its responsibility,” Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel said in a recent conversation. “It could become an adjunct to the executive branch.”

Hagel is no disaffected Democrat frustrated by the imperious GOP leadership. He is a conservative Republican admired by colleagues in both parties for his thoughtfulness and independence. He admits that he is atypical in his concern for Congress’s constitutional role as a check on, and a balance to, the presidency and the judiciary. “Congress is the only thing that stands in the way between essentially a modern-day democratic dictator and a president who is accountable to the people,” he says.

Throughout American history, the status and influence of the three branches of government, and particularly of the executive branch and Congress, have risen and fallen like great historical tides. For long periods, most dramatically in the last third of the 19th century, Congress was dominant. Arguably this was also true in the last quarter of the 20th century, after Congress brought an end to the Vietnam War and forced Richard M. Nixon from office. Even in the ’90s, Congress played a key role in replacing Reagan-era budget deficits with the large surpluses George W. Bush inherited when he became president in 2001.

But Congress’s influence has waned in the past few years, perhaps since the unpopular and unsuccessful effort to remove Bill Clinton from office in 1998-99. Though it occasionally resists an executive-branch proposal, Congress today rarely initiates its own policies. Few members speak up for the institutional interests of Congress. “The idea that they have an independent institutional responsibility, that the institution itself is bigger than the individuals or the parties, doesn’t occur to the bulk of [members] for a nanosecond,” said an exasperated Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a longtime student of Congress.

It occurs to Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. He said that the House has given up the meaningful exercise of its powers by largely forfeiting its oversight role and abandoning all discipline on the federal budget. “Which means that this administration is essentially walking around with a free hand . . . . If the Congress is turned into a jellyfish, there are no checks and there are no balances.” Jellyfish isn’t a bad image for the backbone Congress has shown in recent times.

Read the whole story, which is instructive and stimulating throughout.

My take: The blogosphere reflects an obsession with “the Bush administration,” but the failings of Congress are essential to understanding the last few years.