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How to Break Government Gridlock

By James H. AndrewsJames H. Andrews is on the Monitor staff. / April 17, 1989

THE FETTERED PRESIDENCY: LEGAL CONSTRAINTS ON THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH L. Gordon Crovitz and Jeremy A. Rabkin, editors, Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 335 pp., $14.95 paper, $29.95 cloth

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Gordon S. Jones and John A. Marini, editors,

New York: Pharos Books, 366 pp., $24.95


John E. Chubb and Paul E. Peterson, editors, Washington: The Brookings Institution, 339 pp., $10.95 paper, $29.95 cloth

IN its attempts to solve major national problems - notably the federal budget deficit - the United States government resembles the streets of Manhattan on a Friday afternoon in summer. The traffic signals blink through their cycles, but nothing moves. Solutions seem as remote as the Hamptons to a motorist stuck at 46th and Madison.

Government gridlock is the theme of these collections of scholarly essays appearing almost simultaneously from three major Washington think tanks: the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Brookings Institution, and the Heritage Foundation, in collaboration with the Claremont Institute. The volumes analyze the problem in overlapping but distinctive ways. Individually, each represents an important addition to the literature on American government; collectively, they constitute a probing examination of one of the principal challenges confronting the US as it enters its third century.

Central to the problem is the fact that the presidency and Congress are at loggerheads. The conflict is portrayed most starkly in The Fettered Presidency. To most of the AEI contributors, the clash between the executive and legislative branches is not simply the operation of constitutional checks and balances; rather, Congress over the years has mounted an assault with a view to capturing and holding presidential terrain. In breaching the separation of powers, they assert, Congress threatens to sap the executive of the ``energy'' that Alexander Hamilton hailed as the sine qua non of effective government.

In support of their thesis, the AEI contributors point to:

Congressional encroachment on the president's national-security responsibilities through the War Powers Act.

The emasculation of the president's veto power through Congress's corruption of the budget process, whereby government appropriations are rolled into vast, nearly veto-proof omnibus spending bills.

Congressional attempts to hamstring the executive through such means as the legislative veto and the ``micromanagement'' of executive agencies by proliferating committees in the exercise of their oversight powers.

More subtly, AEI writers complain, Congress has manacled the presidency by entangling the policy process in legalisms and has sought to undercut the very legitimacy of the executive through special prosecutors (``the criminalization of politics'') and the ``politics of scandal.''

In The Imperial Congress, the Heritage essayists by and large concur with the diagnosis of their AEI counterparts, though they are perhaps less inclined to see a deliberate conspiracy behind congressional depredations on the executive branch. The further contributions of this volume include its thorough, and devastating, descriptions of Congress's inner workings, written in part by Capitol Hill insiders. In addition to limning in fine detail the ingenious ways Congress has devised to vex the executive, these accounts explore the gridlock that impedes Congress itself.