Power to the Congress

January 05, 1995

In an atmosphere of anticipation comparable to the inauguration of a new president, Republicans are now in control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. This is in truth a revolution, one of Speaker Newt Gingrich's favorite words, for it signifies more than a shift in party domination. It is the culmination of a trend, going back to Vietnam and Watergate, in which the balance of power in Washington has shifted steadily from the executive to the legislative branch.

The pendulum will swing again, as it has before in American history, but for the next two years and perhaps many more the national agenda will be set as much on Capitol Hill as at the White House.

Yesterday's tableau in Washington was instructive: Mr. Gingrich delivering a speech that in sweep and ambition was nothing less than presidential; Senate Republican leader Bob Dole playing second fiddle to upstart House conservatives determined to keep chipping away at Senate prerogatives; President Clinton choppering in from Arkansas having been reduced, for the moment, almost to an irrelevancy.

All this is cause for celebration among those who believe legislative government automatically means less government. But does it? A young history professor, Woodrow Wilson, once warned that an all-powerful Congress could become a cabal capable of originating, shaping and executing policy without any one person having the presidential authority to represent the whole country.

Complaints about an "imperial presidency," a popular term for the period between Franklin D. Roosevelt's ascendancy and Richard Nixon's downfall, resonated in Washington two decades ago. That it was most on the lips of liberal Democrats is today a forgotten irony. Assaults on presidential power and mockery of the bipartisan traditions that enhanced that power are today the preserve of conservative radio talk-show hosts.

Gingrich Republicans would have us believe that they are as much opposed to an imperial Congress as they are to an imperial presidency. Are they not cutting down the number or committees and staffers? Are they not putting term limits on committee chairmen and the speaker himself? Are they not for shifting authority from Washington to the states? The answers are yes and yes and yes. But Mr. Gingrich, himself a history teacher of high intellect, advocates not a shock Maoist revolution but an FDR-style incremental revolution.

This means the immense federal government that has grown up over the past 60 years will be whittled down only marginally, despite the verbal overkill that will accompany the process. And though President Clinton and his successors will have formidable authority, more and more power may pass to a Congress, in Wilson's words, that "will inquire into everything, settle everything, meddle in everything." Once such a despotic institution gets rolling, it will take a mighty strong president to set things right.

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