The Imperial Congress


Perhaps the most serious development of this second era of Capitol Hill supremacy was the creation of a shadow executive branch under congressional control. The Congressional Budget Office began confronting the executive Office of Management and Budget (OMB), regularly issuing facts, figures, and predictions that differed with the latter’s by billions. The Office of Technology Assessment challenged the experts from the Defense Department and NASA. The Government Accounting Office ballooned to more than 5,000 employees, compared to the OMB’s 500. It too regularly disputed facts and figures from the executive branch.

Over the past four decades, Congress has become the only legislature in the world that plays an active role in its government’s foreign policy. It has regularly undermined, contradicted, and sometimes reduced to utter incoherence White House attempts to deal with the rest of the world.

President Nixon negotiated a promising trade agreement with the Soviet Union, offering them “most favored nation” status and credits with the Export-Import Bank of the United States in return for a promise to repay their World War II Lend-Lease debt and pursue a moderate course in foreign policy. Congress torpedoed the deal by tying it to a liberalization of Jewish emigration. When Greece and Turkey clashed in Cyprus, Congress waded into the imbroglio with an embargo upon Turkey that came close to alienating one of America’s most important Middle Eastern allies.

In 1976 the United States became involved in a covert struggle with the Soviet Union for control of Angola. In search of an issue that would give him visibility in a tough reelection fight, Sen. John Tunney of California seized on Angola and tacked an amendment to a Defense Department appropriations bill, ordering the immediate termination of all assistance to the anticommunists. Although Tunney was not on the Foreign Relations Committee and had previously not uttered a word on the subject, the Senate voted 54–22 to abandon Angola, leaving President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flabbergasted. “The Angola War,” remarked one historian, “was lost in the California primary.”

In its long-running clash with Ronald Reagan over Nicaragua, Congress resorted to outright subversion. House Speaker Jim Wright leaked details of CIA support to the Contra rebels at a press conference and met with officials of the Sandinista government to advise them on how to build backing in Congress. Congressmen David Obey used his control of foreign aid to pressure other Central American governments to tilt toward the Sandinistas.

By the time Bill Clinton entered the White House, congressional interference in foreign policy had become routine. In the fall of 1993, as the new president wrestled with bleeding Bosnia and its rapacious Serbs, starving Somalia and its devious warlords, and recalcitrant Haiti and its defiant generals, representatives and senators from both parties rushed before the television cameras to warn the White House of imminent resolutions that would demand withdrawal from Somalia, bar troops from Haiti, and offer all sorts of recommendations, including how airpower alone could resolve the Bosnian mess. The White House plaintively protested that Congress was interfering with the president’s right to conduct foreign policy. In the nation’s newspaper columns and editorial pages, the lament received barely a word of support.

During the 1970s the legislative veto had become another route to usurpation. Congress wrote a provision into more than 200 laws that enabled it to invalidate regulations or policies recommended by the president or federal departments or agencies by a simple majority vote in a single chamber—or in some cases by the majority vote of a single committee. The tactic so infuriated Jimmy Carter that he sent a special message to Congress listing—and denouncing—48 of these shackles. When Ronald Reagan took office, he ordered his solicitor general to take the matter to the Supreme Court, which ruled the legislative veto unconstitutional.

That judicial punch in the snoot did not intimidate Congress. Its leaders soon developed other less obvious ways of imposing control upon the executive branch and the rest of the country. In the nineteenth century, Congress had passed fewer than 100 bills annually, most less than a page in length. The typical law now arrives for passage with thousands of pages of minute regulations attached to it. Worse, legislators typically introduce more than 10,000 bills in a session and pass between 400 to 500. Presidential historian Forrest McDonald has noted that it’s “obviously impossible for members of Congress to read, let along seriously consider, more than a small fraction of the proposals on which they vote.”

The latest classic was the more-than-2,000-page health care bill this year. The House of Representatives voted this prodigy into law late on a Sunday night, after a weekend of wrangling and deal making. A New York congresswoman remarked, without a hint of irony, that they would have to “pass this bill to find out what’s in it.”

Congress has also discovered the earmark, a legislative device that combines corruption and favors to certain constituents. Casually inserted into measures with which they are entirely unconnected, the earmark is virtually immune to investigation. The 2009 stimulus bill, touted as the answer to the job crisis, contained more than 6,000 of them. President Obama held his nose and signed it, probably with the same resigned sigh of his recent predecessors.