Congress needs to revive itself
Something surprising happened on the floor of the House this week. Representative Don Young, a Republican from Alaska, was supposed to rise and swear in Nancy Pelosi to be leader of the chamber, and then sit down. Instead, the longest serving member of the House chose another course of action. The reader would be forgiven for fearing that Young, with his reputation for unruly behavior, would create a heated partisan moment for the cameras. Such antics are too common today.
Young did no such thing. Instead, he delivered brief but earnest remarks in defense of Congress as an institution. “Madame Speaker, you will be the Speaker of the House, not of the party,” he intoned. “The job of the House of Representatives is to govern this nation” while it “raises the money, decides how it is spent, and represents the people.”
Young, to the laughter of many lawmakers, also suggested that when the legislature was in gridlock, that members “sit down and have a drink, and solve those problems for the nation.” He then swore in Pelosi. Many of the lawmakers who were in the chamber at the time may be inclined to wave away his sentiments as fluff. That would be a mistake.
Young was reminding his colleagues of their constitutional duties. They were elected by voters to represent their constituents first and foremost over their parties. Congress is the first branch of government and it, not the president, makes policies to tackle public problems.
The remarks were a rebuke to the almost parliamentary mindset that has afflicted Congress for the last 30 years. Too often lawmakers believe their first duty is to support or oppose whomever occupies the White House. Too often the majorities reflexively give away the legislative power to the executive branch. Redressing such an imbalance of power between the legislative branch and the executive branch will force lawmakers to think differently. It also will necessitate specific actions.
Congress can continue to upgrade itself for the 21st century. The House admirably voted to have the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress continue to propose new reforms to strengthen the legislative branch. Congress should also curb executive authorities that tend to be abused. Members of both parties have criticized various abuses, such as presidents taking money appropriated to one purpose and spending it on another, and firing inspectors general without cause.
Leaders from both chambers should meet with Joe Biden and ask him to promise not to do those things. They also would be wise to ask the next president to rescind certain emergency declarations, some of which date to Jimmy Carter, that allow the executive branch to take unilateral actions like imposing tariffs or freezing bank accounts of individuals. They should demand the president share with them views of the extent of executive power, which are often in secret at the Justice Department.
Indeed, Young is old enough to remember the days when most lawmakers could transcend their parties and behave according to their constitutional duties. With the new Congress so narrowly divided, neither Democrats nor Republicans can force their policies. This means that lawmakers would be wise to choose compromise and take bipartisan steps to revive Congress so that it can better serve the public. If that means cracking open a bottle of something strong, Young stands ready to assist.
Kevin Kosar is a resident scholar for the American Enterprise Institute and serves as a member of the steering committee for Open the Government.