Whether the next president is Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or someone else entirely, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and his fellow Republican lawmakers believe that president should have less power and Congress should have more.
The fourth installment in the six-part House GOP agenda, focused on the Constitution, was unveiled by Ryan (Wis.) and other Republican leaders Thursday at a morning rollout in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. The new 22-page proposal is aimed at reining in what Republicans call the “fourth branch” of government, the executive bureaucracy, to which Congress has ceded significant powers over the course of decades.
“I would argue this is the most important of our agenda,” Ryan said at the event. “Because won’t be able to fix our safety net, we wouldn’t be able to rebuild our military or pare back the red tape until we put the people back into the driver’s seat.”
Ryan quoted the late Justice Antonin Scalia expounding the view that the checks and balances between the three branches of federal government are the essence of the Constitution, not the Bill of Rights.
“Those amendments to the Constitution may enumerate our rights, but it is the separation of powers that protects those rights, the secures those rights,” he said. “Our country makes sure that no one person exercises too much power.”
That point has taken on new relevance with Trump’s rise, as he has sought to belittle and intimidate rival leaders who stand in his way — including those in his own party. At an Atlanta rally Thursday, he gave this advice to GOP leaders who have criticized him: “Be quiet. Just please be quiet. Don’t talk.”
Asked how he was confident Trump would respect the constitutional separation of powers, Ryan said, “You can’t make this up sometimes.”
“I’ll just say we represent a separate, but equal, branch of government,” he said. “We will lose our freedoms in this country, including all of the Bill of Rights if we don’t robustly defend the separation of powers, and we’re going to fight for those rights on behalf of our citizens so that we remain a self-governing people.”
Like the previous three parts of the House Republican agenda, few of the ideas contained in the proposal to rebalance constitutional powers are brand-new. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have complained about executive overreach for years — Democrats bristled at President George W. Bush’s expansive claims of national security authority, while Republicans seethe at President Obama’s use of agency regulatory powers to carry out his agenda.
The ideas contained in Ryan’s “A Better Way” agenda are almost entirely focused on the latter. They include proposals to regularly sunset the authorizing statutes for federal agencies and programs — the Environmental Protection Agency is specifically mentioned — allowing Congress to regularly readjust their missions or eliminate them entirely; to reform the rulemaking process and write tighter laws to give agencies less latitude to issue regulations and Congress more power to overturn ones it doesn’t like; and to reassert the “power of the purse” through reforms to the budget process and a new “strategic focus” on appropriations and oversight.
“The people granted Congress the power to write laws, raise revenues, and spend and borrow money on behalf of the United States,” the plan reads. “There is no power more consequential. … Yet for decades, Congress has let this power atrophy — thereby depriving the people of their voice.”
Other proposals have a less-partisan tinge, such as reforming the Federal Records Act for the digital age, improving the Freedom of Information Act to end overzealous agency denials of access and making agency spending data more accessible and transparent.
The House has already passed bills that would implement many of these proposals, but few have been taken up by the Senate. Other proposals are much easier said than done: For instance, passing all 12 yearly appropriations bills — something Ryan endeavored to accomplish this year but is on track to fall far short of, thanks in no small part to Republican infighting.
Since becoming speaker, Ryan has frequently lamented the withering of congressional prerogatives — “Article I powers,” Republican lawmakers often call them, in reference to the section of the Constitution that enumerates the legislative branch’s authority — and he has acknowledged that executive power has expanded at Congress’s expense under presidents of both parties.
He did so again Thursday: “Our problem is not so much that the presidency, under both parties, keeps breaking the rules — though it clearly does. Our problem is that Congress, under both parties, keeps forfeiting the game — yielding to the executive branch, giving the president a blank check, not even bothering to read the fine print in some cases.”
And while Republicans have been plenty critical of President Obama’s use of executive orders and agency rulemakings to advance his environmental, labor, immigration and civil rights agendas, Ryan has also betrayed some anxiety about presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his my-way-or-the-highway approach to politics.
Notably, in March, Trump boasted, “I’m going to get along great with Congress. Paul Ryan, I don’t know him well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him. And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price.”
On Monday, in a speech responding to the terror attack on an Orlando nightclub early Sunday morning, Trump reiterated his intent to ban the immigration of Muslims and citizens of various nations linked to terrorism, and he said that he would use his executive authority to do it — sidestepping Congress much as Obama did in 2014 when he announced measures to halt deportations of millions of illegal immigrants.
Immigration powers — as well as the national security powers at issue during the Bush administration — are not mentioned in the latest agenda document.
That caught the eye of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the veteran chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “While there are areas where Congress has failed to assert itself sufficiently — such as the President’s exercise of war powers — this report does little to address those concerns,” he said in a statement. “Rather, this report simply recycles the same old pro-corporate, anti-consumer proposals that House Republicans have been pushing for decades, masked as constitutional issues.”
The last two parts of the Republican agenda, on tax reform and health care, are set to be unveiled next week.