Walcher: Governing without Congress

by Greg Walcher, E&E Legal Senior Policy Fellow
As Appearing in the Daily Sentinel

If America’s founders had been forced to choose between having no Congress, or no president, they would quickly have chosen the latter. They knew all too well the abuses of an all-powerful monarch. But they also knew complex governments cannot be run by committee, so the delicate system of “checks and balances” between executive and legislative power was their inspired solution. It has worked well for 230 years, but it isn’t perfect.

Some congresses have felt the need to rein in powerful presidents. In the Nixon-Ford-Carter era, for example, Congress severely restricted presidents’ war powers, covert operations, and even spending authority. When Congress is dysfunctional, though, it cannot muster the votes to “check” presidential power. Then, a strong-willed president like Obama can dominate policy-making with “a pen and a phone,” as he famously put it. Executive orders often usurped congressional power, and even “treaties” were negotiated with other countries, without the advice and consent of the Senate.

The era of powerful presidents and weak congresses is clearly not over, with a Congress too divided to decide anything. This month a new and even more divided Congress takes office, so it may be even more dysfunctional, and certainly angrier.

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