Our Back-Seat Congress
It took almost no time for President Bush to put his stamp on the national response to the tragedy that has befallen New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, a reminder that modern communications have reshaped the constitutional division of powers in our government in ways that the Founding Fathers never could have imagined.
Because the commander in chief is also the communicator in chief, when a crisis emerges the nation's eyes turn to him as to no other official. We cannot yet calculate the political fallout from Hurricane Katrina and its devastating human and economic consequences, but one thing seems certain: It makes the previous signs of political weakness for Bush, measured in record-low job approval ratings, instantly irrelevant and opens new opportunities for him to regain his standing with the public.
We have seen this before. Bill Clinton was foundering in his third year in office when the destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City shocked the nation and set the stage for his flawless performance of the symbolic rites of healing and comfort for the victims.
And of course we saw how Bush's response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon revived a presidency that looked to have lost its direction and purpose after eight months in office in 2001.
The challenges posed by this natural disaster are in some ways even more difficult than those of the terrorist attack, with anger and frustration now being expressed about the response of governments at all levels. But for a president who believes that actions speak louder than words, this is an advantageous setting.
By coincidence, the same day that the president flew back from vacation to take command of the hurricane response, a group of political observers was gathered two blocks from the White House to discuss the way in which Bush has come to dominate Congress.
What many of them see, in the words of Andrew Rudalevige, a presidential scholar at Dickinson College, is "a resurrection of the Imperial Presidency, facilitated by the combination of executive assertiveness and legislative acquiescence."
Citing examples of what Bush has muscled through Congress -- controversial policies such as the legislation governing Medicare prescription drugs and the Central American Free Trade Agreement to the expanded use of recess appointments for unconfirmed nominees such as John Bolton to the denials of requests for information from congressional committees -- Rudalevige and others said that this president has steadily expanded his domination of Capitol Hill.
"Bush is the most aggressive user of executive power since Richard Nixon," said Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University. Despite the recent dip in his poll ratings, the issues he has chosen occupy the legislative agenda. In foreign policy, he continues to pursue, essentially unchecked, an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq.
In a forum organized by American University and the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, the only dissenting view came from C. Boyden Gray, a former White House counsel to President Bush's father and a friend of the president.
He argued that Vietnam and Watergate had really ended the concept of what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. first termed an imperial presidency and contended that globalization has eroded presidential power by increasing the importance of economic activities regulated by independent agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which are not directly under control of the White House.
But Gray joined the chorus of criticism of Congress as an institution, saying it is so fragmented in its committee structure and has so "muddied its own back yard" that it is no match for a president when it comes to setting policy.
Tellingly, the two former members of the House invited to speak at the forum amplified -- rather than disputed -- these complaints. Democrat Martin Frost of Texas said his former colleagues "are very good at staying in touch with their districts and being reelected." But they do not spend enough time in Washington (with the prevailing Tuesday-to-Thursday workweek) to do the oversight of executive departments needed to keep an effective check on presidential power.
Republican Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma was even more scathing. He recalled that Harry Truman, as a Democratic senator from Missouri serving in a Democratic Congress, made a name for himself -- and helped the country -- by investigating World War II procurement practices in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. "Can you imagine [Senate Majority Leader] Bill Frist directly challenging Don Rumsfeld?" Edwards asked.
The decline of oversight hearings on Capitol Hill reflects what many of the commentators called a loss of institutional pride in Congress. Majority Republicans see themselves first and foremost as members of the Bush team -- and do not want to make trouble by asking hard questions. Democrats find it more rewarding to raise campaign funds and cultivate their own constituencies.
The result is that a system of government in which Congress was supposed to be "the first branch" is -- as this week once again has demonstrated -- one in which the lawmakers are thoroughly overshadowed by the magnified figure of the president.