How to Break Government Gridlock

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


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.

Heritage's other main contribution is its discussions of the rise and operation of the (nominally) independent agencies, the ``headless fourth branch,'' which exist in a state of subservience to Congress.

The Brookings book, Can the Government Govern?, casts yet another beam on the subject through three case studies. Successive chapters examine the recent failure of the federal government to develop coherent and sustainable policies on energy, trade, and the deficit. In each case, the authors say, ossified institutions have been unable to work out new power and responsibility arrangements in the light of changed conditions. The volume also contains thoughtful chapters on the White House staff, on changes in Congress, and on the bureaucracy.

The Brookings volume is less charged than the two others, and the writers are less disposed to assign blame for the problems they discuss. Nonetheless, they share with the contributors to the other volumes a concern over the implications of government disarray for the United States' ability to prosper in a rapidly changing international environment. The editors, moreover, reach much the same conclusion - albeit more dispassionately - as the editors of the other books in calling for a stronger and more assertive presidency. The president alone, they say, has a national perspective and can subordinate factional and parochial interests to those of the country as a whole.

How is this bolstering of the presidency to occur? On this vital question, the editors and contributors are less than sanguine. None of them regard the solution primarily as a matter of fiddling with the structures or procedures of government - ending the two-term limit for presidents, say, or lessening the incumbency lock on congressional seats. (In all three volumes, however, there are varying degrees of backing for a line-item veto for the president and, with less certainty, a balanced-budget amendment.) Instead, these analysts generally concur that the antidote to gridlock is political: Above all, they say, presidents are going to have to become stronger and braver in protecting and exercising the powers of the office.

While this prescription is almost certainly correct, it's also dispiriting. It's especially so in the immediate aftermath of the Reagan era, when the most popular president in half a century, after a relatively brief string of rapid triumphs, was repeatedly hemmed in and frustrated by Congress. Indeed, many of the writers in these books, including the staunchest Reaganites, believe Reagan left the presidency weaker than he found it. The presidential exertions summoned by these writers seem almost superhuman, given the political realities of the age.

Still, we're not left without hope. The editors of the Brookings volume note that American political history is, in part, the story of the branches of government reaching new arrangements after periods of being out of sync. Difficult though the task may be, it's not beyond the powers of American institutions and leaders to make the necessary adjustments and break the government gridlock.

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