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The historic battle between Congress and White House

Each end of Pennsylvania Avenue is ready for a heated battle over the constitutional role of Congress and its oversight of the executive branch. The White House has vowed to fight subpoenas, and House Democrats have already held Attorney General William Barr in contempt. Even with little hope of convincing Senate Republicans to vote for removal of President Trump from office, talk of impeachment grows, even from leaders in Congress who were once rather wary of such an approach.

At stake in this struggle is one of the most fundamental aspects of our democratic government, which is that Congress indeed has the authority to exercise legislative oversight over the executive branch. While it is not explicitly defined in the text of the Constitution, the principle of legislative oversight has been repeatedly affirmed by the courts as a necessary tool for Congress to carry out its enumerated responsibilities ranging from the power of the purse, to war powers, to broad authority to make laws. In this era of hyperpartisan politics, this fundamental balance lies in danger.

{mosads}With a White House that relishes conflict and attempts to paint the Democrats with the brushstroke of legislative overreach, the strategy seems to be working. Buoyed by strong economic performance, the approval rating of the president has ticked up. The Republican base remains firmly behind Trump, and there is hope the clock stays ticking until 2020. If House Democrats go ahead with impeachment, there is the chance that it will backfire, just as it did during the impeachment of President Clinton. While disturbing in its details of Russian interference, most headlines about the report by special counsel Robert Mueller have led the public to believe that Trump has not committed any crimes.

However, there is also the example of Watergate. There is historical data that shows how impeachment hearings and the uncovering of executive criminality created a loud drumbeat that cratered the approval rating of President Nixon and led greater numbers of Americans to call for his removal from office. Stonewalling Congress also serves to keep possible details of Russian interference, family business mismanagement, and obstruction of justice out of the headlines before the election next year.

In the era of stark political tribalism today, it is clear that the institutional interests of Congress are trumped by partisanship. It is telling that the Senate Intelligence Committee subpoena to Donald Trump Jr. came from Republican Senator Richard Burr, who will not be running for reelection. Still, the long memory of our digital era has many of us remembering the forceful statement by Republican Senator Marc Rubio about oversight of former Attorney General Eric Holder and the “Fast and Furious” scandal, and the impassioned defense by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of legislative subpoena powers during the Clinton impeachment process.

Thus, we are reminded that no party has a permanent hold on Congress or the White House. In historical circumstances, the courts resolved these impasses. In United States versus Richard Nixon, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that there were limits to executive privilege. In a far more politicized judiciary, will these precedents be respected? Those reading the tea leaves will observe how the successful appointment of Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the institutionalist priorities of Chief Justice Roberts might upend or reaffirm such precedents. If the courts were to curtail legislative oversight or expand executive privilege, then Congress would have little more than its power of the purse to check the president.

Legislative oversight exists so that we have a country governed by checks and balances and the rule of law. At best, Congress would continue its decline towards a partisan parliament where party affiliation, rather than institutional prerogative, rules the day. At worse, if Congress can do little more than leave the government unfunded and shut down to check an unaccountable president, then the United States will have emulated the tin pot dictatorships and banana republics that we have long decried.

Ultimately, with no sign of this conflict abating inside Washington, the answer will come from ballot boxes around the country. The results of the 2018 midterms showed that the American people wanted a legislative check on the president. If this oversight battle remains unresolved in 2020, then it will be up to the American people to decide whether our government endures the way it was meant to under the Constitution.

Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and the director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington.

Tags Congress Donald Trump Election President Robert Mueller William Barr

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