What Can the GOP Congress Actually Do?

Frustration with the inability of Congress to counter Obama effectively has reached a fever pitch, among our own readers and a large number of conservatives generally. This partly accounts for the popularity not only of Donald Trump, but also Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson—all non-politicians. There is rising talk that House Speaker John Boehner may be vulnerable to an ouster by restive GOP House members. And Mitch McConnell gets bad press, too.

But step back a moment and take note of a few political facts. First, a Republican majority in Congress does not mean there is a conservative majority in Congress. And many House GOP conservatives are actually quite weak, worried more about their own re-election than taking a tough vote. The votes in the Senate simply aren’t there to sustain a defunding of Planned Parenthood through the route of a government shutdown, for example. The lesson of this and other frustrations is that we need to elect a new president.

And no one is giving the GOP credit for the few things they have attempted. The House and Senate did pass a bill to greenlight the Keystone Pipeline. Obama vetoed it in about 15 minutes. Anyone remember that? Or how about the 2013 government shutdown Congress attempted in an effort to repeal Obamacare? That didn’t work out very well for Republicans, and but for the disaster of the Obamacare rollout the GOP might not have recovered as it did by the 2014 election. Will the conservative grassroots really feel better about things if Obama is forced to use his veto pen more?

Certainly Congress could be much more aggressive in oversight hearings. Aside from Trey Gowdy in the House and Tom Cotton in the Senate, why can’t anyone play this game? There have been a few worthy but halting efforts, but the process should be relentless, especially with the IRS scandal, the EPA’s so-called “Clean Power Plan,” and other Obama Administration actions. Why hasn’t Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood been called before a congressional committee to be grilled about Planned Parenthood’s palpable butchery? [UPDATE: There was in fact a hearing on PP yesterday, but without Richards.] Why aren’t there hearings with the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education about the injustice of the Title IX “guidance” it has forced on colleges and universities? (As a bonus, send a subpoena to Rolling Stone for testimony about its bogus University of Virginia rape article.) Why aren’t there endless hearings roasting regulators for their job-killing regulations?

Above all, however, people should remember that the same system of checks and balances that prevented Obama from getting a single-payer full government takeover of health care (which is what he really wants) also prevents our side from rolling Obamacare back very easily—or a great many other things that need rolling back. One of the great books about constitutionalism I sometimes assign to students is Charles Howard McIlwain’s Constitutionalism Ancient and Modern (originally published in 1940 and now back in print thanks to Liberty Fund.) This is one of the key passages early in the book:

“A constitutional government will always be a weak government when compared with an arbitrary one. There will be many desirable things, as well as undesirable, which are easy for a despotism but impossible elsewhere. Constitutionalism suffers from the defects inherent in its own merits. Because it cannot do some evil it is prevented from doing some good. Shall we, then, forego the good to prevent the evil, or shall we submit to the evil to secure the good? This is the fundamental practical question of all constitutionalism.”

This works both ways. Congress, by its very nature in our system, is seldom able to match the force of our unitary executive when the executive power is wielded as arbitrarily (and despotically) it has been by Obama. As I say, the only truly effective remedy for our current discontents is a new president.