President Trump has demonstrated a remarkable ability to transfix the nation in 280 characters or less. With his fingers tapping a phone screen, he makes the day’s headlines, consuming the news cycle for the next 24 hours.
But this is just symbolic of a president’s greater and deeper power. Nuclear decimation is one button-push away, national monuments one signature, international relations one offhand comment. And he controls the dozens of federal agencies under the Executive Branch: Departments of State, Labor, Energy, Transportation, Education. Each of these represents thousands of employees and millions of Americans who interact with these agencies every day, all answering to one man on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Political scientists have long noted the steady transformation of the presidency from the people’s representative to a centralized, near-imperial position. Successive presidents have accumulated greater and greater power, ratcheting up the office’s prestige and consolidating its influence. This is not the product of one party. Conservatives balked at Obama’s numerous executive orders. Progressive voices continue to decry Bush’s military action in Iraq. Even some libertarians, enthralled with Trump’s war on regulations, recognize the paradoxical power-grab inherent in those actions.
This growth of executive power has happened despite, and often because of, Congress, which was envisioned as a co-equal branch of government. Presidents have often taken power in the face of economic or military crises. But Congress has ceded power by failing to act when needed, whether due to belated recognition of serious problems, special interest pressures, gridlock, or the unwillingness to take politically difficult votes. To argue, as members of a president’s party often do, that these powers are used for “good” misses the point. One person’s step forward is often another’s step backward. In a constitutional system, the ends don’t justify the means because the means protect minority rights and ensure that policies are fully considered and have broad support. America is not a country of unilateral statutes, especially not dictates emanating from one man that can be- and often are- simply nullified with the next administration. Ours is a country of debate and discussion, where policy ought to be chewed and digested rather than spat out carelessly.
In that spirit, The Lugar Center endeavors to empower the people’s elected officials- Representatives and Senators- to make careful policy decisions, deliberating together for the sake of positive outcomes rather than political points. That’s why we’re working hard to invigorate Congressional oversight in ways that will bring the branches back into balance and check the Imperial Presidency. Oversight, a Congressional function just as important as legislation, is the main tool by which Congress can expose executive actions and blow the whistle on violations of Congressional intent or the Constitution.
The first step is to give Americans a tool to evaluate Congressional performance on executive oversight. This will be a first-of-its-kind Congressional Committee Oversight Map, which seeks to underscore the powers of the Legislative Branch to prevent the ever-expanding imperial presidency. The consolidation of executive power has evolved in part because of Congress’s unwillingness to perform aggressive oversight. By building an accessible window into these rules, The Lugar Center can encourage Americans, as well as their elected representatives, to use the legislative resources available to them to combat an encroaching White House.
It's time for Congress to get serious about executive power. This issue runs far deeper than any one person. Those enshrined in the gleaming-white monuments up and down the Mall had a specific idea: embed meticulous separation of powers in the Constitution so no one person would grow too powerful. However, without these checks and balances, the federal government- and the entire country- is subject to one person’s authority. Regardless of party, the issue of executive overreach is a cause that should concern all Americans. By increasing the transparency of legislative oversight, we hope to empower Americans’ elected representatives and their constituents as well.
To help build the Congressional Committee Oversight Map, consider supporting The Lugar Center’s campaign here.