If nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of being hanged, there should be quite a few members of Congress, particularly but not exclusively Democrats, who are having a moment of clarity about the lamentable state of the legislative branch in our constitutional system. These are not new concerns. As I pointed out two years ago, following an otherwise partisan and contentious hearing before the House Rules Committee, “every witness and member who spoke to the issue seemed to agree that there has been a serious erosion of congressional power in recent decades and that Congress has failed to act in self defense when faced with presidents who seek to aggrandize their power at the expense of the legislative branch.”
There are, of course, institutional and structural reasons why it is hard for Congress to push back against executive overreach. Congressional Democrats may have agreed in theory about the dangers of an “uber presidency” (as Professor Jonathan Turley puts it), but for the last 8 years they have had little or no interest in doing anything about it. Congressional Republicans, on the other hand, have advanced various proposals for restoring legislative authority, but they have lacked either the ability or the will to put them into effect.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not the result simply of moral failings on the part of our elected representatives. Since at least the end of the Second World War, Congress has been at a substantial disadvantage in advancing its institutional prerogatives vis a vis the executive. Modern presidents “sit atop a vast executive branch and are able to take a wide variety of actions unilaterally.” Bradley & Morrison, Historical Gloss and the Separation of Powers, 126 Harv. L. Rev. 411, 440 (2012). Congress, on the other hand, as a plural body has a serious collective action problem in attempting to respond: “each individual member has relatively little incentive to expend resources trying to increase or defend congressional power, since he or she will not be able to capture most of the gains.” Id. Moreover, the “modern party system further reduces the incentives of individual members of Congress to act systematically in constraining executive power or resisting executive aggrandizement.” Id. at 443. Because “individual members of Congress tend overwhelmingly to act in accord with the preferences of their party,” the president’s co-partisans rarely will cooperate in any effort to constrain his power. Id.
These problems are exacerbated by an imbalance of resources between the two branches. One example, near and dear to the heart of this blog, relates to executive branch’s advantage in the sheer number of lawyers dedicated to advancing its institutional interests. This is perhaps both a cause and a symptom of the legislature’s disadvantage: “The fact that Congress lacks an institutional counterpart to the Office of Legal Counsel (which, among other things, monitors congressional inroads on executive authority) is an illustration of the executive’s greater institutional focus.” Bradley & Morrison, 126 Harv. L. Rev. at 443.
A noted OLC veteran once summarized Congress’s problem thusly:
In any controversy between the political branches over a separation-of-powers question, staking out a position and defending it over time is far easier for the Executive Branch than for the Legislative Branch. All Presidents have a high interest in expanding the powers of their office, since the more power the President can wield, the more effectively he can implement his political agenda; whereas individual Senators may have little interest in opposing Presidential encroachment on legislative prerogatives, especially when the encroacher is a President who is the leader of their own party.
NLRB v. Noel Canning, 134 S.Ct. 2550, 2606 (2014) (Scalia, J., concurring) (citing Bradley & Morrison).
These observations suggest that expectations for renewed assertions of congressional authority should be low. Congressional Democrats may find a new urgency in aggressive assertion of such authority, but congressional Republicans are just as likely to go in the opposite direction, seeing it to be in their political interest to cooperate with the incoming administration. They may continue in theory to support many of the ideas that have been put forward (establishing and enforcing limits on agency authority, strengthening its exercise of the power of the purse, conducting more robust oversight of the executive branch, and enforcing congressional subpoenas and demands for information), but in practice these goals will be secondary to the political expediency of supporting the new president.
Yet, as Bradley and Morrison note, the weakness and passivity of Congress is historically contingent. 126 Harv. L. Rev. at 446. The “obstacles to effective congressional checks on executive power—including members’ tendency to think more in terms of party than branch, and the President’s greater ability to appeal to the national electorate—are not fixed features of our constitutional order.” Id. at 447. Perhaps the unique qualities of the president-elect, including but not limited to his historically unprecedented disapproval ratings, will change congressional behavior.
Some observers suggest reasons for optimism. George Will writes: “For constitutional conservatives, the challenge is exactly what it would have been had Clinton won: to strengthen the rule of law by restoring institutional equilibrium. This requires a Republican Congress to claw back from a Republican executive the legislative powers that Congress has ceded to the administrative state, and to overreaching executives like Obama, whose executive unilateralism the president-elect admires.” Ben Domenech says of the president-elect, “his attitude and character are so abrasive to the sentiments of the American elites that it almost has to result in a reassertion of the powers of the other branches of government, particularly the Congress.”
We will see. If Congress is going to act, it must do so quickly. After all, the president-elect (probably) doesn’t even know what the OLC is yet.
In the meantime, they will soon be erecting the scaffolding on Capitol Hill. For the inauguration, of course.