Democracy isn't always pretty, but here's why the down-to-the-wire debt ceiling debate actually shows government is working.
- By Amy KauffmanAmy Kauffman is director of congressional relations at the Hudson Institute.
How can this Congress be the worst ever, when it is the first in recent times to actually address the United States’ looming debt and step in to assert its legitimate authority? Throughout this budget process, Congress has demonstrated sincerity in its duty, and Sunday, July 31’s, debt ceiling deal puts the country on the path to ending the crisis.
On Jan. 6, when the 112th House of Representatives convened, the first order of business was to read the U.S. Constitution aloud. One might think this would be routine each session, as all 435 elected representatives are asked to take an oath to "support and defend" it. Yet surprisingly, this was the first time that the House had members read the Constitution in full.
As dictated by the Constitution, Congress’s most important power is the power of the purse. Article 1 states, "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law." This authority allows Congress not only the ability to tax, as well as sell government goods, properties, and services, but also to borrow on the credit of the United States. Congress, therefore, is responsible for the debt that the United States incurs.
This control is not only Congress’s right, but a central duty. If Congress allows expenditures to grow unchecked, it has failed in its authority. This is crucial in the system as it allows a check to the president’s budget, limiting spending by the executive branch. Constitutionally, the president may get to write the budget, but it is within Congress’s power to suggest a different one and to curtail spending as it chooses.
For weeks, much of the media and most pundits have aligned to take swipes at the speaker of the House and members of the House such as Paul Ryan, chairman of the Budget Committee. While no one wants the entitlement party to end, someone has to be the adult in the room and recognize it is going to take serious cuts to get the United States back on the right path. And that responsibility has to fall on Congress.
The House of Representatives was established by America’s Founding Fathers as the government body closest to the people, as it is elected every two years. The House, more than any other part of the U.S. federal government, best represents the United States’ diversity as a nation. And because of this multiplicity in opinions, passions, and economic concerns, the House at times battles itself. Throughout the Federalist Papers, it is recognized that the United States will be a diverse nation filled with countering ambitions and contrary viewpoints that will be recognized through ardent debate.
The Constitution set up a series of checks and balances by giving equal, but different, powers to the branches of the federal government. Remember that word: equal. The president does not rule alone. Congress as a whole is an equal partner with a responsibility to provide oversight of the executive branch. For some time, Congress has not exercised this responsibility effectively. This was especially true during the first two years of President Barack Obama’s term, when the House, Senate, and executive branch were under the control of the same party. It is tough to be the overseer when criticism is seen as undermining one’s own party.
When the balance shifted and John Boehner became speaker, the House of Representatives was finally in a position to provide the necessary balance. Congress has a critical role to play in serving as a check on the executive branch. Thanks to courageous leadership by Ryan and other budget hawks, the House has now played a critical role in forcing Obama to come to grips with out-of-control federal spending and in reshaping the agenda in Washington.
The 20th century changed the intended role of the presidency, elevating it above the other branches. Woodrow Wilson sought greater control of economic policy by creating agencies such as the Federal Reserve, which allowed experts to control policy as opposed to those elected in Congress. Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the president’s power further through his creation of even more government bureaus within the executive branch along with the Reorganization Act of 1939. His four terms in office left the impression that the president was truly the supreme authority
New forms of media in the last century, such as radio and television, also helped the president significantly overshadow Congress. Charismatic presidents such as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton were able to captivate the public in a way no president has before. Congress changed into a reactive body, responding to the policies of the president, instead of helping set the agenda, and neglecting its responsibility to provide regular checks.
The actions of the 112th Congress are far from surprising. During the last seven votes, since 2007, on extending the debt ceiling, Republicans have withheld their support. And in 2010, more Republicans were elected because of their economic and fiscal conservatism. Their principled opposition to new taxes and support of spending reduction was their stated goal.
Democracy is a slow deliberative process that, at best, makes sure diverse points of view are recognized. This Congress has been subject to unfair abuse for trying to do its job effectively.
So, no, the 112th is not the worst Congress ever. That title belongs to past Congresses, which drove us deeper into debt, and not this one — which is simply trying to find the way out.