House panel to examine how Congress can reclaim power from executive branch

House panel to examine how Congress can reclaim power from executive branch
© Greg Nash

A top House panel announced Tuesday that it will examine how congressional power has been ceded to the president — and how to win it back.

Questions surrounding the balance of powers between the executive and legislative branches are as old as the country itself. But they have grown in intensity under President TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE, who has come under fire for unilaterally imposing policies on issues as varied as trade, immigration and the use of military force.

Behind Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the Rules Committee next week will take a closer look at what it calls the usurping of Congress's powers, as designated by the Constitution, by presidents of both parties stretching back decades.

In a statement announcing the March 3 hearing, McGovern suggested the blame for the executive power grab resides largely in a familiar place: Capitol Hill.

“For decades, one Congress after the next has abdicated its authority over fundamental matters like declaring war, rulemaking, and utilizing its power under the National Emergencies Act," McGovern said in a statement. "It has happened regardless of which party controlled Congress or sat in the Oval Office."  

Concern over the shift of power toward the White House is hardly partisan, and McGovern has a prominent ally in ranking member of the Rules Committee Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump's erratic tweets upend stimulus talks; COVID-19 spreads in White House Republican fears grow over rising Democratic tide Bottom line MORE (Okla.), a Republican institutionalist who says he's also eager to have Congress reassert its delineated authority in the face of runaway administrations of both parties.

"[T]he legislative branch established in Article I remains the most closely connected to the views of our nation’s citizens to this day. The importance of that role and responsibility cannot be overstated," Cole said. "Though the shift has been gradual, I have long been concerned by Congress ceding some of its authority as well as presidents of both parties claiming power that belongs to the legislative branch."

The common concerns reflect a shifting landscape in the balance-of-power debate over the last half century. Following Watergate, Congress stepped in to enact a series of laws designed to prevent presidential abuses of power, including the War Powers Act, giving Congress the explicit authority to launch military operations; the Freedom of Information Act, aimed at promoting government transparency; and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which sought to rein in domestic surveillance by the nation's spy agencies.

Since then, however, administrations of both parties have sought to claw back executive power — and been largely successful.

Although billed as bipartisan, the Rules Committee proceedings are sure to diverge when it comes to the subject of presidential scrutiny.

Republicans had attacked President Obama for years with allegations that he overstepped his authority, citing a host of actions that included tougher environmental rules, recess appointments to administrative posts and the creation of the Deferred Action to Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Among the loudest critics at the time was Donald Trump.

“Why is @BarackObama constantly issuing executive orders that are major power grabs of authority?” Trump tweeted in 2012.

Yet with Obama gone, and Democrats controlling the Rules Committee gavel, next week's hearing is sure to focus heavily on the current president, who has pursued a unilateral agenda of his own since taking office.

Among Trump's more controversial moves have been a ban on travel from predominately Muslim countries; the adoption of new tariffs on some of the country's leading trading partners; and the declaration of a national emergency to transfer billions of dollars in federal funds, earmarked by Congress for the Pentagon, to build a wall along the southern border.

More recently, as tensions with Iran have escalated, Trump has asserted the power to confront Tehran without congressional approval — a claim that prompted a rare bipartisan rebuke from the Senate after last month's drone strike in Baghdad that killed a top Iranian general.

McGovern has long advocated for Congress to reclaim its war powers by adopting a new resolution authorizing the use of military force in the sprawling war against terrorism. Without naming Trump, he forecast that next Tuesday's hearing won't sidestep the issue.

"We cannot allow decisions that should have been made either solely by Congress or collaboratively between the legislative and executive branches to be made exclusively out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," McGovern said.