It’s no wonder Americans have such a low regard for Congress, when government officials are allowed to thumb their noses at it with impunity. In recent memory the worst sanction the legislature has given to a recalcitrant official has been to hold Eric Holder in “contempt of Congress” — the first sitting Attorney General ever to be so designated. That only has effect if the target has any sense of shame, which few in
D.C. Mordor do anymore. Official designation or not, it’s clear much of official Washington shares that contempt.
It’s no coincidence that defiance from Holder, Lerner, Rosenstein and Wray parallels the public’s near-record low approval of Congress, which, according to the RealClearPolitics average, hit a meager 14.2 percent earlier this week.
But Congress has only itself to blame because the Constitution gives the first branch it created “all of the ultimate weapons in any showdown with either of the other two branches,” in the memorable phrasing of professors Willmoore Kendall and George Carey in their classic “The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition.”
Here are five of those “ultimate weapons,” whose deployment ultimately depends on the will of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to defend the right of Congress to be the people’s representatives…
Put somebody in jail.
Impose a big fine.
Invoke the power of the purse
Cut the workforce.
More political appointees.
It’s worth reading the description of these five options at the link. Despite the frequency of choreographed televised hearings, Congress has largely abdicated its oversight role with regard to the Federal bureaucracy. This was apparent at least by the time of the “Fast and Furious” gunwalking scandal and the IRS investigations, during which the agencies slow-rolled Congress’ requests for information with impunity. True oversight involves exercising the power to compel compliance. The Founders intended the legislature to be “first among equals” within the branches of government. They, not unelected paper-pushers, represent the people.
The president has less power than people imagine over employees in the Executive Branch. While he can fire political appointees, career bureaucrats have created a byzantine disciplinary process that, in effect, prevents nearly anyone from losing their job. I encountered this while supervising relatively low-level “civil servants” — I can only imagine how much more difficult things are in the executive suites.
With a majority in Congress, however, it should be a simple thing to put entire departments like the FBI on notice: comply with legislative directives and requests, or perish as an agency. Congress can defund any activity of the government with a simple vote. Unfortunately, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have shown zero interest in actually asserting Congress’ prerogatives. They are as much a part of the swamp as the agencies running amok, as the recent omnibus bill debacle shows. That should be a key issue during these midterms — voters need to seek candidates who will support Trump’s “swamp draining,” and that includes pledging to vote in new Congressional leadership.
But for any of this to happen, We the People will need to be more focused than ever this election cycle. The election of Trump will accomplish little if voters allow the legislature to defend the status quo by resolute inaction.