When Congress Checks Out

Published 03 May 2017

The last six (6) years of the Bush Administration has been wrought with controversy and has been highly criticized for throwing the entire democratic system into utter chaos. With allegations of railroading legislation and human rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay, it stands to reason why such events were allowed to transpire. The separation of powers that the United States government has is supposed to prevent these abuses. No single branch is allowed to have so much power and neither is any branch allowed to exercise their functions arbitrarily to the detriment of others. Yet, despite these safeguards, it seems that there was nothing that was done to prevent these abuses of power from happening.

One branch which has been highly criticized for its participation, or lack thereof, in the perpetuation of these abuses is the United States Congress. As one of the main players in the separation of powers, Congress has the solemn task of making sure that no laws are passed that will be harmful to the American public. It also ensures that under the system of checks and balances it acts as an oversight for the foreign and national security policies of the executive branch. This lack of oversight by Congress is a problem that must be addressed immediately.

In his article entitled, When Congress Checks Out, Norman Ornstein, criticizes the disappearing act of the United States Congress. He essentially argues that the Bush Administration was able to aggressively pursue its own agenda without the oversight functions of Congress to hamper it due to several factors, among which include the lack of focus on governance and the emphasis on politics and numbers. It is clear that there are several problems that have arisen due to the lack of oversight that Congress has exercised and these problems persist today. As such, this brief discourse will examine a few of these arguments and show how this might possibly be resolved in an effort to maintain the integrity of the United States Democratic System.

Ornstein begins his discussion by pointing out the recent failures of Congress to exercise its oversight function. He mentions that the Bush Administration failed in its foreign policy because it was allowed by Congress to fail. He argues that if Congress had indeed investigated and deliberated on the matter it would have a better result as opposed to the foreign relations disaster the United States is currently facing. While there certainly is merit to such an assertion, it is always easier to criticize than it is implement the proper foreign policy.

It will be remembered that the concept of separation of power is one that has been around for a long time. The former models of government for the Europeans featured a monarchial and centralized form of government where all power was derived from a single source, which was often a monarch. Under this form of government, the consolidation of power was so absolute that there was no delineation between the different branches of government.

According to commentaries on the matter, an individual could be arrested, tried and executed within the same day because of this. In fact, the lack of separation of powers and accountability was such that it turned certain monarchial systems into tyrannous rule. As such, power was given to other branches, such as the Legislative in order to curtail these abuses.

As it is, Ornstein is correct in that Congress probably did not exercise its oversight function thus leading to the current foreign relations problem. Another perspective, however, recognizes that the separation of powers breeds competition and animosity within the government. As with any political structure, there are always factions and parties that are lobbying for position. In an effort to gain control, these parties may oftentimes leverage their position by making it difficult for the other branches of government to exercise their functions in order to get what they want. This is the reality that has transpired as the politicking between the members of the Republican and Democratic Party has effectively rendered impotent whatever powers congress had to prevent the Bush Administration from bullying its way through Congress.
While the right to declare war outright is not a presidential imperative and must be ratified by Congress, it does not necessarily mean that such is a power that the president cannot exercise or that the president cannot, through political maneuvering, convince Congress to vote in this favor. The current system of checks and balances can be easily exploited by the president which leads to it being ineffective. This implies that the power that the president has is virtually unchecked and absolute.

As Ornstein points out, the political underpinnings that transpired in the United States congress creates a unique situation wherein the President of the United State exercises virtually unbridled power and no accountability for such actions. It is submitted therefore that as the separation of powers shows, there is no central political theory in that the President is not assured that his agenda can be implemented if he cannot gain the support of the legislative. Similarly, without the support of the President several functions of the legislative and measures can be blockaded and rehashed into the legislative machinery. It is clear that it is necessary to have a central agency that plans the framework of American democracy to make it more effective.

The article of Ornstein is a fresh perspective on the Bush Administration, devolving the blame to the entire government system as opposed to popular views of blaming the Chief Executive. One thing that must be remembered, however, is that Freedom of expression, Freedom of Association, Equality, Equal Protection and the Rule of Law are all important hallmarks of any democracy which allow for transparency, representation and responsibility.

Upholding and protecting these principles remains the key to the success of any democracy. Perhaps the key here lies in preserving the one concept that drives all of these which is that sovereignty rests within the people. It must never be forgotten that the existence of governments, democratic and otherwise, is because of the exercise of sovereignty by the people. There is no other power which legitimizes the power of governments, even democracies.

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