National Review: A Stronger Congress, A Healthier Republic
"All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives."
– Article I, Section 1, U.S. Constitution
The federal government is broken. And while there is plenty of blame to go around, only Congress can fix it.
We don’t mean this as an indictment of any one leader or party, because the dysfunction in Washington today has accreted over decades, under Houses, Senates, and presidents of every partisan combination, as well as the many different justices of the Supreme Court.
To be sure, not every misguided, dysfunctional federal policy is a direct act of Congress. But that points toward the root problem.
The stability and moral legitimacy of America’s governing institutions depend on a representative, transparent, and accountable Congress to make its laws. For years, however, Congress has delegated too much of its legislative authority to the executive branch, skirting the thankless work and ruthless accountability that Article 1 demands and taking up a new position as backseat drivers of the republic.
So today, Americans’ laws are increasingly written by people other than their representatives in the House and Senate, and via processes specifically designed to exclude public scrutiny and input. This arrangement benefits well-connected insiders who thrive in less-accountable modes of policymaking, but it does so at the expense of the American people — for whose freedom our system of separated powers was devised in the first place.
In short, we have moved from a nation governed by the rule of law to one governed by the rule of rulers and unelected, unaccountable regulators.
Congress’s abdication, unsurprisingly, has led to a proliferation of bad policy and to the erosion of public trust in the institutions of government. Distrust, also unsurprisingly, is now the defining theme of American politics.
For conservatives, Congress’s dereliction represents something of a crisis. First, because conservatives believe in constitutionalism as a bulwark of freedom and justice in our society. And second, because the transfer of lawmaking power from Congress to the executive branch tends to thwart the kinds of policies that conservatives often advocate — namely those that limit the size, ambitions, and influence of the federal government.
It’s no wonder Congress’s job-approval ratings are at historic lows. Oftentimes we’re not even doing our job, and — just look around — the American people are paying the price.
Congress’s reclamation of its constitutional authority is a necessary first step toward real reform, within Washington and around the country.
That is why we have joined with eight colleagues in the House and Senate to develop and promote a new agenda of structural reforms that will strengthen Congress and reassert its vital role in our society. We call it the Article 1 Project (A1P).
Specifically, A1P will focus on restoring congressional power in four key areas at the core of Washington’s — and America’s — broken status quo.
First, Congress must reclaim its power of the federal purse. Our formal budget process, which dates to 1974, has fallen apart, and we must restructure it for a post-earmark world. We need to bring entitlement programs back onto the actual budget and bring self-funding federal agencies back under annual appropriation.
Second, we need to reform legislative “cliffs” that loom behind expiring legislation — at the end of the fiscal year and when the federal debt nears its statutory limit — to realign the incentives of the American people and their government.
Third, Congress must take back control of actual federal lawmaking. Today, the vast majority of federal laws are unilaterally imposed by executive-branch agencies. The bureaucrats in these agencies then serve as police, prosecutors, and courts in the ensuing cases. All major regulations should be affirmatively prioritized and approved by a vote of Congress.
Finally, we must clarify the law governing executive discretion, which right now allows presidents and federal bureaucrats to ignore or rewrite federal statutes, so long as they have a clever enough reason.
Reform in these four areas would put Congress back in charge of federal lawmaking and put the American people back in charge of Washington — just as the Founders intended.
With political attention now fixated on the presidential race, little hope for major legislative breakthroughs in President Obama’s final year in office, and the American people furious at Washington’s indifference and dysfunction, now is the perfect time for Congress to begin thinking about what a re-constitutionalized federal government would look like.
Such a government would not deliver either party or any citizen everything it wants. But it would give the American people a more representative and responsible government, and in turn, a healthier, freer society. All that stands between Americans and the government of, for, and by the people that the Founders bequeathed us is the will of the Congress to finally step up and do its job.
— Mike Lee represents Utah in the U.S. Senate. Jeb Hensarling represents Texas’s fifth district in the U.S. House of Representatives.