The Imperial Congress

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On a little-remarked, steamy day in late June 1973, a revolution took place in Washington, D.C., one that would transfer far more power and wealth than did the revolt against King George III in 1776. On the 29th, a sweaty, angry majority of the House of Representatives and the Senate defied the president of the United States and voted to end armed American involvement in Vietnam.

Whether this was a day of ignominy or triumph, the cowardly abandonment of a small ally or the casting off of an albatross from around the Republic’s neck, is a matter of debate to this day. But what remains clear is that the vote was the Bastille Day of a major upheaval; on its heels came a series of laws asserting unprecedented congressional power, climaxed by the humiliating resignation of a president one step ahead of impeachment. Since that day, Americans have been living in—some would say enduring—another era of congressional government.

While this revolution has been largely ignored by the media, congressional government is a historical reality that profoundly affects how the U.S. government operates. A Johns Hopkins graduate student named Woodrow Wilson first named the phenomenon in 1884, identifying it as a serious threat to stability: “In proportion as you give [Congress] power it will inquire into everything, settle everything, meddle in everything.” The ultimate danger was legislative tyranny, which Wilson feared would result in despotism far worse than the rule of a dictator. Unlike a single man, Congress could become a despot “who has unlimited time—who has unlimited vanity—who has, or believes he has, unlimited comprehension.”

Mr. Madison’s War

Writing in the midst of America’s first era of congressional government, Wilson was echoing a warning issued by the father of the Constitution, James Madison, who had nervously drawn attention in the Federalist Papers to the tendency of legislatures to encroach on the rights and prerogatives of the executive branch. At the Constitutional Convention, Madison forcefully advocated for a powerful presidency; he remembered all too well how the 40 to 50 quarrelsome politicians in the Continental Congress had hamstrung Gen. George Washington during the eight years of the Revolutionary War. But the majority of the convention’s delegates were far too steeped in fear of executive tyranny to envision the office with much clear-cut power.

As the convention’s presiding officer, Washington could not join the debates. However, the convention occasionally resolved itself into a committee of the whole, in which Washington sat and spoke as a member of the Virginia delegation. In the debate on executive power, he urged that the president be given a truly monarchical veto over any and all acts of Congress, without conceding the legislature even the ability to override it by a two-thirds majority. This went too far for his colleagues—and the power to override was retained.

When Washington became president, he announced his intention to take charge of the nation’s foreign policy by writing a circular letter to foreign governments, advising them that thenceforth all communications should be addressed to him rather than to Congress. Without an iota of consultation—Congress was in recess—he issued a proclamation of neutrality in the war between revolutionary France and England. He delegated Chief Justice John Jay to negotiate a complex treaty of reconciliation, then used his personal prestige to win its approval from Congress. The House of Representatives at first refused to vote the necessary implementing funds of about $90,000; but when the congressmen demanded all relevant papers, the president invoked executive privilege and declined their request. Opposition collapsed.

Meanwhile, Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, introduced the doctrine of broad construction of the Constitution, which expanded executive powers to a degree that alarmed Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and many congressmen, including Madison. Hamilton stunned Congress with a series of bills that funded the Revolutionary War debt, created a Bank of the United States, and proposed to push the federal government into the manufacturing business and end American dependence on foreign goods.

“Congress may go home,” grumbled Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania, irked by the way the executive was turning his branch simply into a group of men wielding rubber stamps. “Mr. Hamilton is all-powerful and fails in nothing he attempts.” 

Although other cabinet members also drafted bills, no one approached Hamilton’s aggressive style. He helped select the committees that reviewed his proposals and even participated in their debates. President Washington approved and supported his policies, which corresponded perfectly with his vision of a strong executive.

Washington’s vigorous leadership became an ironic contrast to the feckless performance of President Madison, who saw his fears of legislative tyranny fulfilled before his eyes. “Congress,” he lamented to his predecessor Jefferson, was in “an unhinged state.” Henry Clay and other headstrong congressmen were calling for war with England in response to the seizure of American ships and the impressment of seamen. Madison agreed with their sentiments but believed the dispute could be solved without war and did nothing to prepare for the imminent conflict. The War of 1812 became a series of military disasters, climaxing in the British burning of the White House and almost every other government building in Washington, D.C. Calls for Madison’s impeachment swirled through the nation.