The Imperial Congress

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But Wilson’s mastery deserted him in his second term, which was dominated by his decision to intervene in the war devastating Europe. Whether his role as commander in chief gave him delusions of grandeur, or the hardening arteries that ultimately felled him were to blame, he bungled the 1918 midterm elections, which returned Republican majorities to both houses of Congress. His attempt to play the autocrat when he submitted the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate backfired even more disastrously, and Congress laid him low in their historic clash over the League of Nations.

Wilson’s successor in a larger-than-life-size presidency was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who seized command of Congress and the nation from the moment he took office in the Depression-wracked America of 1933. He had obviously absorbed the examples of Wilson and his fifth cousin Theodore. In an interview with the New York Times on November 13, 1932, a week after his election, FDR said: “The presidency is not merely an administrative office. That is the least of it. . . . It is preeminently a place of moral leadership. . . . Without leadership alert and sensitive to change, we are all bogged up or lose our way.”

Along with moral leadership and a tidal wave of legislative proposals, Roosevelt added a new ingredient to the president’s relationship with Congress—a merciless use of the veto. He rejected 631 measures—more, if we discount Grover Cleveland’s vetoes of minor private bills than all 30 of his predecessors combined. Presidential leadership, as Roosevelt practiced it, was by no means synonymous with harmony. It was more often accompanied by the sound of gnashing congressional teeth.

During World War II, Roosevelt expanded the powers of the presidency to global proportions, creating dozens of federal agencies and spending billions of dollars with blank checks supplied by a passive Congress. As the war wound down, there were ominous signs that many senators and representatives in both parties were unhappy with the endless stream of diktats from the White House. If FDR had lived longer, he would have faced a Congress as surly and hungry for power as the ones Andrew Johnson and Wilson had confronted.

The lawmakers lost no time in trying to intimidate Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S Truman, by ignoring virtually all his legislative proposals. When the Republicans won control of both houses in 1946, Sen. William Fulbright suggested that Truman should appoint a Republican as secretary of state and resign. With no vice president, this putative leader of the opposition would become president.

This fantasy of congressional supremacy was aborted by a snort of contempt from Truman—and by a new historical phenomenon: the Cold War. The confrontation with communism institutionalized the president’s role as a world leader towering above Congress. Over the next two decades, the executive branch grew exponentially: the CIA became a private presidential army with a secret, seemingly unlimited budget; the Defense Department sent millions of soldiers, sailors, and fliers to Europe and Asia; fought the Korean War; and made secret commitments to nations around the world with little more than a ceremonial bow toward Congress. The National Security Council swelled into a second State Department inside the White House.

Between 1926 and 1959 the executive department budget ballooned from $10 million to $38 billion, with 95 percent of the expansion coming after 1932. By the late 1950s it was 800 times larger than Congress’s budget. As recently as 1964, Congress was considered an almost superfluous branch of the American government.

Under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, presidential power reached a new zenith. While waging war in Vietnam, Johnson was the first chief executive who chose not to spend huge amounts of money voted by Congress for pet projects such as federal highway and housing programs—in 1967 a staggering $10.6 billion, or 6.7 percent of the federal budget. 

This policy of “impoundment” was continued by Nixon with even more ruthless regularity. By 1973 he had impounded funds for more than 100 federal programs, arguing that it fell within his constitutional power as the guardian of the nation’s fiscal stability.

Nixon’s overwhelming electoral victory in 1972 over Sen. George McGovern, a leading congressional opponent of the war in Vietnam, seemed to rocket his presidency into the very empyrean of political power—until a seemingly insignificant burglary and the White House’s fumbling attempt to cover it up precipitated the earthquake of Watergate.

Once more, Congress laid the presidency low, and a second era of congressional government began. After abandoning South Vietnam, the lawmakers quickly asserted jurisdiction over the CIA; then they put the president on a 60-day leash should he send troops into combat without its approval with passage of the War Powers Act. In the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 they arrogated the power to decide how much to spend, and spend again.

In 1976, when the voters sent a Democrat to the White House, the Democratic chairman of the House International Affairs Committee, Clement Zablocki, announced: “We are not going to roll over and play dead just because Jimmy Carter is president.” Before his first year in office was over, Carter was complaining vehemently about congressional interference and usurpation.