During an event held for political donors in Arkansas, Sen. Tom Cotton (R- Ark.) and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R- SC) drew a line in the sand: The next Congress will not be taking a laissez-faire approach to oversight over the next four years.
The new Commander-in-Chief may have a couple of months to settle in, but eventually Congress will hold the hearings, launch the investigations, and demand answers from the very executive branch officials that America’s system of checks-and-balances demands be held accountable.
“The legislative branch was designed to be and at one point was the most powerful of the three branches,” Rep. Gowdy told the donors in the audience. “It is without question the weakest of the three branches now.”
Unfortunately, Gowdy is right.
Despite being afforded tremendous power under the Constitution, Congress has ceded too much authority to the executive branch rather than undertake their constitutional role. This is doubly the case on matters of foreign policy and national security, where the recent administrations have acquired so much authority, a visitor entering America on vacation could be forgiven for assuming that being a member of Congress was a largely ceremonial task.
The irony of this situation is that even officials in the executive branch are underlining how imbalanced the executive-legislative relationship has become over the past fifteen years. In his last major national security speech as President of the United States, Barack Obama publicly scolded lawmakers on national television for avoiding their Article I responsibilities under the U.S. Constitution.
Far from being the strict constitutionalist and law professor he pledged to be during his 2008 campaign, President Obama has contributed just as much to the executive-legislative imbalance as any previous president. His biting words towards members of Congress should therefore be taken with a grain of salt; extending the meaning of the 2001 war resolution against Al-Qaeda to fight terrorist groups only menially connected to the organization, for instance, is not exactly something that a constitutionalist would support. Nevertheless, the transition to a new administration is the best opportunity that the legislative branch will be presented in the next four years towards at least fixing the imbalance that has been left behind As Sen. Cotton himself affirmed, “this is the moment where we [Congress] can claw back some of that constitutional authority for the legislature.”
So what can Congress do in order to reassert that authority and translate those words to actions?
First and perhaps most importantly, Congress must work together to reform the way the both the House and the Senate debate and pass appropriations bills into law.
Over six years of divided government, Washington has all but operated on autopilot – legislating and appropriating only when a crisis is just around the corner. Passing individual funding bills for government departments and agencies no longer seems remotely possible, forcing Congress to either keep the government open through short-term continuing resolutions, shut down the government, or lump all of the government’s programs into a massive, 2,000-page omnibus spending bill. The process is rushed and fast-tracked, with defense programs and reforms that should be receiving individual attention kicked down the road for short-term expediency. A fast-tracked funding mechanism works to the advantage of the executive by depriving the legislative branch of options. And it’s just not good government. Congress must do its job.
Second, congressional leadership should make far more use of annual authorization bills by being more aggressive on the accountability and oversight measures. The creation of special commissions would go a long way in demonstrating to the executive branch that the people’s representatives will use all of the power afforded to them under the Constitution to ensure that the policies being implemented and the programs being managed are running smoothly and having the impact that was advertised.
Congressional committees and investigations are vitally important, but they can often mimic witch-hunts devoid of purpose and driven by partisan motives. The establishment of non-partisan, legislatively mandated commissions — either through annual authorization bills or through stand-alone legislation — with the power to take testimony, review the evidence, and subpoena witnesses if necessary is a way to get around that conundrum. Commissions staffed with technocratic experts reporting to Congress is also one of the most effective ways that a foreign policy issue of some controversy can be monitored and investigates while at least partially escaping the politics of Washington.
Finally, Congress can no longer be shy or reticent in merely signing off on massive weapons sales – often to the tune of billions of dollars- to other nations. The U.S., for instance, has sold more than $100 billion in aircraft, tanks, ammunition, and enablers to Saudi Arabia over the past eight years. Only once has a weapons sale to Riyadh been fully debated on the floor of the U.S. Senate – a debate that only occurred when a bipartisan coalition of senators—Paul (R-Ky.), Lee (R-Utah), Murphy (D-Conn.), and Franken (R-Minn.) forced their colleagues to defend the merits of the transaction in full view of the American people. The U.S. needs to be much smarter and conditional in which country it sells fighter aircraft and Abrams tanks to, and Congress has a special responsibility under U.S. law to give the process due consideration.
There is a lot more that the legislative branch can do to correct the imbalance of recent years, including holding a floor vote on whether or not to authorize the president to use military force overseas rather than allowing the White House to further expand an already overly expanded, fifteen-year war resolution. But if Cotton and Gowdy genuinely intend to help Congress take back some power from the executive instead of using it as a talking point, the three recommendations outlined above would be a positive first step.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.