The case for a strong Congress

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Congress is an easy target; frustration with bipartisan failure is at an all-time high, with Capitol Hill's approval ratings lower than that of an Occupy Wall Streeter at a Chamber of Commerce dinner.

Presidential candidates routinely rail against Congress, with President Obama's re-election campaign based on the (fortunate) refusal of Congress to impose even more spending, higher taxes and greater regulation.

Denunciations of the House and Senate are not limited to Democrats; one of the core issues of former presidential candidate Rick Perry, which consistently gained him the most support, was his proposal to cut congressional salaries by 50 percent and shorten congressional sessions.

While Perry's candidacy foundered, his explicit calls to weaken Congress were a guaranteed applause line. Sensing the public sentiment against them, the House of Representatives and Senate over the last two years have cut their own budgets by 5 percent, including reducing staff by 7 percent.

President Obama, as well as his Republican rivals, has committed to implementing sweeping changes through new waves of executive orders in January 2013, bypassing congressional votes. Obama, using dubious "recess appointments," has also ignored the Senate's constitutional authority to confirm top officials, despite the Senate not actually being in recess.

While calls to "cut their pay and send them home" resonate among the American people, these appeals to disregard or eviscerate Congress are shortsighted.

The 435 members of the House of Representatives, 100 members of the Senate and their few thousand staff stand between the American people and all the power and authority of the executive branch.

If you exclude from these numbers Democrats who share Obama's vision of larger and more powerful government, the balance of power rests even more with the president.

Against the members of Congress who oppose the relentless growth of the state are arrayed all the powers of Washington, D.C.

In addition to 7,000 political appointees, named by the president or his cabinet officials, there are more than 2 million (nonmilitary and nonpostal) federal employees charged with carrying out executive orders, regulations and federal laws. Farmers confronted by the EPA, builders by OSHA, bankers by a whole range of regulatory agencies, often feel as if they are under siege by an army of regulators, inspectors and auditors dedicated to crushing businesses for minor violations of obscure regulations.

While not every representative or senator responds to constituents threatened by federal agencies, most do, with dedicated staff that can intervene to ask hard questions of the Corps of Engineers, IRS and other representatives of federal power.

Congress can and does summon Obama's political appointees to face uncomfortable questions in public hearings. While OSHA, the IRS, the SEC and the EPA can steamroll over individuals, they cannot safely ignore Congress, which not only has oversight but controls the federal budget.

As it stands now, Congress has too few staff and too few days to investigate all the potential misdoings, errors and mistakes by federal agencies. Would it really be in our nation's interests to have less oversight over an administration that brought us Solyndra, "Fast and Furious" and the largest deficits and debts in U.S. history?

The same reasoning should apply in both directions; would Democrats really want to give a blank check to the next Republican president, with less oversight from Congress?

Do we really want a part-time Congress, or a Congress with no staffers, or a Congress filled only with the very rich (who can afford to serve for no salary)? As satisfying as it is to call for Congress to be cut down to size, in the end, a successful effort would further weaken the constitutional checks against an overreaching presidency.

Wayne H. Bowen, professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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