Bush vs. Congress

As the president prepares to run against Capitol Hill, his hidden agenda is a large transfer of constitutional power

PRESIDENT Bush appears to be getting ready to run against Congress for reelection. Congress certainly presents an attractive target, whether it is bouncing checks with the House bank, not paying its bills in the House restaurants, or bringing X-rated Senate hearings to the nation's living rooms. And Bush has an encouraging precedent in President Truman's successful give-'em-hell campaign against the "good-for-nothing, do-nothing Republican 80th Congress" in 1948.But there is a big difference. Truman campaigned against the way Congress handled such issues of postwar America as housing, education, and taxes. Bush throws in some talk about issues, but his basic theme is to belittle Congress as an institution. The remedies he proposes would weaken, not strengthen, Congress. They might even destroy Congress as an effective check on the president. His remedies would certainly result in a massive transfer of power from the legislative to the executive branch of the gov ernment. All of the government's fiscal woes, to hear the White House tell it, stem from an uncontrollable congressional urge to spend. The solution, the president says, is to amend the constitution to give the executive the power to control spending through a line-item veto of appropriation bills. Yet if Congress had approved executive budgets as submitted during both the Reagan and Bush administrations, the deficit would have been larger in every year since 1981 and the national debt today would be correspondin gly greater. The line-item veto is not about fiscal responsibility; it is about the distribution of power within the federal government. Bush also wants to limit the number of terms an individual can serve in Congress. This idea has attracted a good deal of public support. Some states, California prominent among them, have even voted to limit the terms of members of their legislatures. This strikes a resonant chord in American political life - throw the rascals out - but it is a superficial remedy to a much deeper problem, and it would have several pernicious consequences: * It would throw out the responsible, thoughtful members of both parties along with the demagogues and deadbeats. * It would make worse the ills it is designed to cure. It would guarantee that every member of Congress would arrive in Washington wondering what he would do when his allotted time was up, and you can bet it would not be to go back to Pocatello, or wherever he came from. If too many members of Congress are cozy with lobbyists and special interests now, more would be even cozier under a term limitation. * It would put Congress even more at the mercy of technocrats in the bureaucracy as well as in private law firms, businesses, and trade and professional associations. Cynics say that Congress is too much at the mercy of technocrats now, and to an extent they are right. But there are senior members of Congress - who would not be there under a term limitation - who know enough to talk to the technocrats on even terms, or better. That expertise would be lost, and is irreplaceable. * It would raise a fundamental question about the congressional staff. Does the staff serve the institution, or serve individual members? If the former, the staff would stay while members come and go and would acquire even more influence than it now has. If the latter, then staff as well as members would become even more beholden to the executive bureaucracy and to outside special interests, not only for legislative expertise but for future employment. ONE of the criticisms of Congress is that its members spend too much time thinking about, and running for, reelection. What are politicians supposed to do, and think about, in a democracy? The good ones do it by discussing issues such as health care, or taxes, or foreign policy, or at least trying to get television sound bites about them. The mediocrities do it by bragging about how they get federal money for local sewer projects or highway construction. Either way, the people can hold them responsible. Under a term limitation, they would soon be all lame ducks, with no accountability. The net result would be to make Congress a less effective check on the president than it is now. Some people (of whom President Bush is one) think the president is checked too much already, that Congress is infringing his constitutional powers and prerogatives. But the drafters of the Constitution intended for the president and Congress and the judiciary to check and balance each other. When presidents complain about Congress, it is usually a sign that Congress is doing its job. The line-item veto and congressional term limits would seriously tilt the constitutional balance of power toward the president. They are ideas whose time should never come.

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