What Next for the House? (Take 3)

Almost a year ago I noted here in a post entitled “Time to Revitalize Congress” the great 1959 book by James Burnham, Congress and the American Tradition, in which Burnham warned that the power and capacity of Congress was atrophying badly. Go back and read the whole post if you have time (I actually called for bringing back earmarks!), but here’s the most salient paragraph from Burnham:

Congress has let major policy decisions go by default to the unchecked will of the executive and the bureaucracy. The twenty-pound, million-itemed budget that is dropped annually into Congress’ lap perfectly symbolizes the paralyzing effect of too many details. Since that kind of budget cannot be comprehended, it obviously cannot be effectively controlled. . . . Congress keeps an illusory appearance of mastery in its own legislative house, but in reality loses control of basic decisions.

This is prelude for noting Yuval Levin’s very fine column yesterday at NR about “The Next Speaker’s Agenda” that gilds this point:

The weakness of the Congress is the foremost problem now confronting our constitutional system. It is in part a function of the overreaching of the other two branches, to be sure, but I think it has much more to do with the under-reaching of the legislative branch: For decades now, under presidents and congressional majorities of both parties, the Congress has willingly ceded power to the president and to judges and has abided the erosion of its primary position in our system of government. Congress has done this for a variety of reasons, though above all because its members (of both parties) would rather avoid responsibility for hard policy choices and because members of the president’s party at any given time incline to think their policy preferences would be better served by an assertive executive who shares them.

In other words, the problem is much larger than just the failure to confront Obama effectively. Read the whole thing if you have a few minutes. And if you can spare 45 minutes, here’s Chris DeMuth of the Hudson Institute, delivering a lecture on “How to Revive a Constitutional Congress” at the Hillsdale College Constitution Day conference two weeks ago:

An early version of this lecture appeared in the Weekly Standard last fall. See also his “Congress Incongruous” from the LibertyLaw site.


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