The Legislative vs. Executive Branch, Round 1

Posted on May 8, 2019
Durham, NC

This is a very interesting time for historians and political theorists. Congress, in an abrupt reversal of their previous decades of willingly ceding power to the executive branch, has decided–surprise surprise–that it has actual powers. Republicans in congress and the senate are crying foul, saying that Democrats are only exercising power for political purposes. In my view, whether congress has reversed tack for political reasons is a tautological question–every action that congress takes, by definition, is for political purposes. The question of interest is rather whether the legislature asserting its authority over large parts of the function of the government is a good thing.

“Good” is a squishy term that can mean next to anything. What I mean by “good” is that which is salutary to a system of representative government, where decisions must be made by majority consensus, and the executive is rightly constrained in his power so that his ability to abuse those vast powers granted to him are curtailed. For the past eighty years, the legislative branch has decided that it is more expedient to allow the executive to make decisions, largely through regulatory mechanisms. For example, in the transition from national isolationism to capitalist empire, the legislature has decided that, rather than declare war when employing military force around the world, it would rather the executive take whatever action it feels is necessary. The power to start and end wars is one of the main powers granted to congress. By abrogating this responsibility, the legislature isn’t held responsible for when things go wrong.

Yet on war powers and oversight, it’s time for the legislature to reassert its role as the preeminent power in the American system of government. When executives wantonly disregard the will of the legislature, and more so when they disregard the plain text of the law, as the executive branch under Trump has done with recent congressional subpoenas and requests for Trump’s tax records, it sets a dangerous precedent for the executive to disregard the will of congress and the law in the future. While this particular skirmish seems small and itself not too significant, if the executive branch is victorious now, future power-hungry executives, probably those much more competent than Trump, will point to this result as reasoning why what their doing is okay. On the other hand, if the legislature now gets its way, historians might look back at this battle as an inflection point to when the legislature finally halted the relentless seeping of power from their branch to the executive.