Thursday, January 3, 2019

The 116th Congress

At noon today, in obedience to the U.S. Constitution and the recently expressed will of the electorate, the 116th Congress will convene. Importantly, this will mark a return to "divided government," thanks to the restoration of Democratic control of the House of Representatives. while the Republicans retain the Senate and the White House. This could and perhaps should mean a return to the Founders' vision of the Executive and Legislative as co-equal branches of government, each defending its institutional prerogatives and thus checking the other. 

This, of course, has largely ceased to be the case in our present political era thanks to the development of political parties (which the Constitution did not envision) and the modern evolution of those parties from broad coalitions to narrowly ideological, hyper-partisan cults, concerned with uncritically supporting or opposing the president's agenda rather than with the institutional independence of Congress. A positive interpretation of this development might be to say that the congressional parties have been acting as if ours were a parliamentary system. Now, parliamentary systems have much to recommend them, and on balance I have always believed that a parliamentary system would be the better model in many ways. But that can't change the fact that our government is not structured as a parliamentary system, is not designed to work that way, and cannot consistently work that way.

But neither can it work the way it was intended, A modern government depends on executive initiative and leadership (another argument for a parliamentary system). Not only is Congress ill equipped to exercise such initiative and leadership (regardless of the constitution's clear intent), but its members are increasingly allergic to such a role and prefer to abdicate as much as possible to the executive and the judiciary. 

And then there is the perennial problem of the Senate - a predicament accurately diagnosed by Alexis de Tocqueville almost two centuries ago: "If the minority of the nation preponderates in the Senate, it may paralyse the decision of the majority represented in  the other House, which is contrary to the spirit of constitutional government" (Democracy in America, volume 1, chapter 8). 

At present, the only branch of our entire federal government which represents the majority of the American electorate is the House of Representatives. It will be up to the new House to live up to that challenge and function as the ultimate check on our unpredictable and unconstrained president and our unrepresentative and presidentially compliant Senate.

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