Nation suffers when Congress limits its ideas

August 21, 2005|By Robert Previdi

THE PRIMARY responsibility of a member of Congress is to the Constitution and thus to the separation of powers, resulting in checks and balances. Loyalty to the president and political party must never become more important than full dedication to the rule of law, which is the Constitution.

Separation of powers is especially important when Congress and the president are from the same political party. The idea that Congress must wait for the president to lead is in direct opposition to the Constitution. Neither political party must ever be a rubber stamp for the president or be limited by his or her ideas.

For example, I couldn't believe it when I heard Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, say in a recent TV interview that he had to wait for President Bush to take the lead on proposing changes to Social Security before he, as the chairman of the Finance Committee, could take action. Has our form of government become so presidential that Congress must wait for leadership from the executive branch?

Separation of powers demands that Congress be a force that reaches its own conclusions. It must have its own agenda and its own viewpoint. Once it does that, then negotiations can begin with the executive branch - one branch of government versus the other. The last thing the party in power in Congress should do is to push for only what the president wants or to wait for his leadership. That's a formula for a non-thinking and dictatorial government.

The goal of the American system is to have an exchange of ideas between the legislative and executive branches. That way, the branches serve as a constant check on each other while allowing intelligent debate on a wide range of issues. To assume that the president will always offer the best solutions to public policy issues is shortsighted and illogical.

Consider the federal budget. Increasingly, Congress has been waiting for the president to present the budget to it. But Congress should be preparing its own budget long before it ever considers what the president has presented. Both branches must be competing for popular support of their ideas.

Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution makes clear what is legal: "All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other bills."

The founding fathers of our nation wanted Congress representing the people to be the guardians of the people's money, not the president. Article 1, Section 9 makes this absolutely clear: "No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law."

Joseph Cannon, an Illinois Republican who was Speaker of the House early in the 20th century, put it this way: "When Congress consents to the executive making the budget, it will have surrendered the most important part of representative government." The more the people and their representatives fail to understand this logic, the more our nation will suffer.

Congress was smart enough to name a building after this great gentleman, and it must listen to what he said. The people will be in better control of the nation's finances when the responsibility for the budget moves solidly back to Congress. The primary fight for who gets what must be between members of Congress representing different areas of the country.

The Constitution makes clear that the rule of law depends on Congress. Therefore, the president's role in legislation, the budget and especially in making war, is secondary to that of Congress. James Madison said, "In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war and peace to the legislature and not to the executive department."

The only way for Congress to work as a unit is to have the members' first loyalty be to the Constitution and thereby to the legislative branch. The objective is to develop a legislative consensus consisting of the majority party viewpoint tempered by that of the minority party.

And most important, when it comes to making war, the nation would benefit by having a Congress that develops its positions separate and distinct from what the president may want. To make war a party issue, as we did with Vietnam and Iraq, does not serve the republic well.

Finally, and most importantly, the people do not benefit when Congress cannot defend them against the executive branch and the judicial branch. This situation may turn out to be the biggest problem of our time.

Robert Previdi has written extensively about the Constitution and is the author of Civilian Control versus Military Rule.

Columnist Michael Kinsley is on vacation.

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