The Imperial Congress

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There may be a lot more corruption beneath the surface of Congress, but the lawmakers have taken pains to make it as difficult as possible to find it or prosecute them for it. They have exempted themselves from the provisions of the Ethics in Government Act and a host of other laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Freedom of Information Act of 1966, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972. Simultaneously they voted themselves the most generous health-care benefits in the nation. Obviously they—and the voters—have forgotten James Madison’s solemn warning that the only protection against federal tyranny is the requirement that Congress too must live under the laws it passes.

Few measures or new laws are likely to persuade Congress to change its ways as conclusively as a strong president with the power to demand reforms and the skills to sell them to the American people. Congress is, of course, a necessary part of the effective American system of checks and balances. Today almost every nation has a legislative assembly of some kind. On the other hand, the American presidency is a distinctive office, created in a rare historical moment by a fusion of tradition and invention and the intuitive leadership of George Washington. This precious political asset must—and will—be rescued from the vagaries and power plays of congressional government. One can almost hear Woodrow Wilson asking: “What’s taken you so long?”