Annapolis Institute Overview


Imperial Congress costs us a fortune

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, October 18, 1990

The budget mess in Washington continues, and there are several schools of thought on how we got into it in the first place.

One is the divided government theory. Americans are ticket-splitters on election day, resulting in tension and sometimes deadlocked Democratic-controlled Congress and a Republican president.

Others, Jeffersonians who favor citizen government, pin the blame of the character and capacity of a new breed of elected leader. This is the professional politician who is in politics as a lifetime career. He has replaced the citizen politician – the butcher, the banker, the merchant, the practicing attorney – real people of substance and experience with everyday life.

They would say of Congress what Henry Adams, the 19th century philosopher, noted about the progression of presidents from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant: It disproves the evolutionary theory of natural selection.

They blame the advantages if incumbency and would save the problem by limiting terms of members of Congress and reforming campaign finance rules.

Another theory is the idea of the Imperial Congress. Unlike Europe’s parliamentary systems, where strong executives dominate legislatures through strong parties, the American system has weak parties, a weak executive and a strong Congress.

The Imperial Congress, when a majority of its members can agree, can pretty much run the show. We saw this in the mid-1970s when Congress passed a series of laws, including the Budget Impoundment Control Act and the War Powers Act, which further undermined the constitutional powers of the president.

Initially the Imperial Congress got its way in the recent so-called Budget Summit. It forced the President to back down on his campaign promise of no new taxes, abandon his campaign pledge to re-establish a growth-producing capital gains exemption, and give up his demand for Congressional budget reform.

After the President did his public mea culpas, the Budget Summiteers reached agreement, but the Congressional leaders who cut the deal couldn’t make it stick. Other members of Congress, the backbenchers, rebelled against their own leaderships.

So here we are, back where we started before the Summit. The real problem is that we have a Congress that can’t make a deal with itself.

As a result, we are seeing in the U.S. what we have seen in so many other nations: a political system that is sabotaging the economic system.

Perhaps deep cuts in government spending, as required by Gramm-Rudman-Holings if the President and Congress can’t reach an agreement, would be better than a patched together package of tax increases.

At least it would give voters a clear choice on Nov. 6, between incumbents who sidestepped the tough choices and got us into this mess, and newcomers who may show some backbone. An election that counts for something. Perhaps we should give it a try.

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