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Congress needs more muscle

Congress needs more muscle
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Joe Biden is set to become the next president of the United States. As the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crisis continue unabated, it is critical that the current administration commit to a peaceful and orderly transition of power. American families and businesses desire it. Congress should use the transition time to provide itself more muscle, not because Republicans may control the Senate and provide a partisan check on the priorities of Biden, but because Congress has ceded a critical amount of its power to the executive branch over the last several decades.

A collection of civil society groups has watched this trend for some time and formed the Power of the Purse Coalition this year. Among its critical recommendations are more legislative oversight of mandatory spending and more transparency for the executive branch on how it uses taxpayer dollars allocated by Congress. Those moves are at risk thanks to political divisiveness. More than 72 million people voted for President Trump, and some are angry about the results. Democrats had lost seats in the House, where they still hold a narrow majority, and may fail to gain control of the Senate from Republicans and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

This creates the potential for at least two years of political gridlock. Some Republicans will call for a blanket rejection of any and all issues advanced with Biden and Democrats. Some Democrats, frustrated with Republicans, will call on Biden to give up on Congress and will ask him to create policy and political wins by executive fiat. With this hypothetical scenario, both parties would be mistaken, while voters would lose more faith.

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Instead, Congress must make itself stronger. It should rehaul the budget process and create more incentives with lawmakers to better plan for the future rather than swerve from spending crisis to spending crisis. It must conduct the oversight role with more muscle, shining light on movement of taxpayer dollars in the executive branch and protecting the inspectors general and whistleblowers who guard against waste and abuse. It should also invest more in itself as an institution so that lawmakers can write bills that make better estimates of potential costs of new legislation.

They may even find a partner with Biden. Before he served with President Obama, he served almost four decades for the Senate. Biden is set to be the first president to have served more than four years in Congress since Gerald Ford, so he is in a position to understand the role of Congress and the history of executive power grabs. Biden could make it one of his core missions to restore the balance of power in the federal government. The results would be fewer executive orders, fewer lawsuits traded between the president and Congress, and fewer gigantic legislative packages set toward the final word before the nine Supreme Court justices.

To their credit, Democrats had been paying attention with this dynamic when they introduced the Power of the Purse Act in the spring. This bill would bolster legislative oversight over executive branch decisions with taxpayer dollars, mandate the executive branch to more often report for Congress on lapsed funds and spending transfers, and reform the ability of the president to make the national emergency declarations.

So Democrats must not give up on the bill now that one of their own has been elected president. Republicans should support the bill to enact it in the lame duck session, even if some lawmakers have to withstand critical accusations from their Democrats that they only support the bill because Biden is about to take office. But this bill is the best action for voters and would start to restore the balance of power within government.

This check on executive power could hurt some priorities of Democrats under Biden, just like it could hurt some priorities of Republicans under Trump, but it would make for a more effective Congress and will rebuild some trust between voters, their members, and their president.

Andrew Lautz is government affairs manager at National Taxpayers Union.