“I’ve got a pen,” said President Obama early this week.
“I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions … that move the ball forward.”
“When I can act on my own without Congress, I’m going to do so,” the president added Wednesday at North Carolina State.
Thus did Obama signal that he will bypass Congress and use his executive powers to advance his agenda of national transformation.
This dismissal of Congress has gone almost unprotested. In an earlier age it might have evoked talk of impeachment. But not now.
For though Congress may be the first branch of government in the Constitution, with the longest list of enumerated powers in Article 1, its eclipse has been extraordinary.
Congressional powers have eroded or been surrendered. The esteem in which Congress is now held calls to mind Emily Dickinson: “It dropped so low in my regard/I heard it hit the ground.”
Congress boasts a 13 percent approval, a surge from its all-time low of 9 percent last fall before the budget deal.
While ex-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed disappointment in Obama and Hillary Clinton in his book “Duty,” and was dismissive of Joe Biden, his view of Congress dripped with venom:
“Uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, often putting self (and reelection) before country — this was my view of the majority of the United States Congress.”
At Congressional hearings, Gates says he was “exceptionally offended by the constant, adversarial, inquisition-like treatment,” and lines of inquiry that were “rude, insulting, belittling, bullying, and all too often personal.”
Admirers of Obama, Hillary and Biden have all come forward to defend them. Where are the defenders of Congress from this searing indictment by Gates? Almost nowhere.
What happened to Congress? Not so long ago, school children were taught more about Sens. Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster than many of the presidents of that pre-Civil War era.
High among the causes of Congress’ decline has surely been the loss or surrender of its constitutional powers — to presidents, the Supreme Court and a federal bureaucracy Congress itself created.
Consider this. Under Article 1, Congress is entrusted with the power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations.”
With the exception of slavery, there was not a more divisive issue before the Civil War than the tariff question.
In the Jacksonian era, South Carolina almost seceded over the tariff, and Andrew Jackson threatened an invasion.
Today, Congress first surrendered to the executive the authority to negotiate trade deals, and then passed fast track, denying itself the right to amend those treaties. Congress has restricted itself to a yes or no vote on what the executive negotiates.
The transnational corporations that finance campaigns are delighted.
But as a consequence of NAFTA, GATT, and the WTO, a third of U.S. manufacturing jobs and a huge slice of our manufacturing base have been shipped overseas, and we have run $10 trillion in trade deficits since Bush I.
The stunning industrial decline of the United States has been matched in two centuries only by the USSR.
Congress was granted the power to “coin money” and “regulate the value thereof.” But in 1913, Congress transferred that power to the Federal Reserve.
With the Fed as its steward, the dollar’s purchasing power had fallen to that of a couple of pennies in 1913. And the Fed was responsible for the stock market bubble that bought on the Great Crash of 1929 and Great Depression, and the real estate and stock market bubbles that brought on our own Great Recession.
Yet, the Fed is untouchable.
Though Congress was granted exclusive power “to declare war,” our last declared war was in 1941.
Obama today draws “red lines” and tells nations not to cross them or we bomb, and announces to the world that, in dealing with Iran, “all options are on the table,” meaning war.
But when did Congress authorize Obama to wage war on Iran? Never.
Nor did Congress authorize Bill Clinton to bomb Serbia.
While Congress was granted the power in the Constitution to restrict the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, that court has been on an ideological tear, remaking America without a nod to Congress.
The court has created new rights for criminal suspects out of thin air. It ordered all states to integrate public schools, even if that meant forced busing by race across cities. It declared abortion and homosexual relations to be constitutionally protected rights.
Congress often complained, but almost always did nothing.
Congress has behaved more timidly than the Court, whose justices serve for life. And unlike the president, Congress cannot act decisively or speak with a single voice. It’s a cacophony.
Sundered by party and ideology, with 535 members, and rules and regulations that inhibit decisions and impede action, Congress appears a 19th-century anachronism at sea in a 21st-century world.
Who looks to Congress today as the bulwark of our liberties?