Congress watches its power ebb

From controlling budgets to deciding when and why to go to war, Congress appears less relevant today than at any time in decades.

Lawmakers haven't exactly abandoned their posts on Capitol Hill. The committee hearings, the finger-jabbing oratory, and backroom dealmaking all continue.

But the center of gravity has shifted toward the White House, in a change that could be more than just the passing phase of Republican control on Capitol Hill. Consider:

• Early next month, Senate Republicans are proposing a rule change that would lower the threshold for presidents to win approval of their judicial nominees, from 60 votes to a simple majority.

• Congress is on the verge of passing a $400.5 billion defense bill this week - including what the Pentagon describes as a top-down transformation of the US military - with minimal discussion. In past years, defense bills have been grist for intense debate.

• Lawmakers are quietly chafing about Bush administration limits on their freedom to visit Iraq to make independent assessments.

Since the founding of the Republic, power has ebbed and flowed between presidents and the Congress. But now a confluence of factors could signal a more lasting change, some experts say.

During wartime, presidents have traditionally held the political high ground, and the Sept. 11 attacks spawned a notion new to America: a state of perpetual war. This comes alongside television's steady rise as the dominant cultural medium, which presidents have used to increasing prime-time advantage.

Throw in a remarkably assertive president and a Congress that currently lacks forceful leaders, and it's a recipe for a legislative branch with diminishing clout.

In some areas, lawmakers have even been ceding power voluntarily - often to avoid criticism over their inability to act on thorny policy questions. Notable examples include war powers and the budget - the two areas where Congress tried to make a stand against executive power after the Watergate era.

"The Founding Fathers thought that each branch would protect itself and fight off encroachment, but Congress is giving away its cherished prerogatives," says Louis Fisher of the Congressional Research Service.

After 9/11, Congress gave the president broad discretion to determine when and if the nation took up arms in Iraq. It gave the Justice Department the authority to write the rules governing tradeoffs between individual liberty and national security in fighting the war on terrorism at home.

Earlier this month, a Senate delegation canceled a trip to Iraq, after the Bush administration objected to the visit. "I hope that these restrictions will be lifted in the near future. I don't ask for any commitment, [I just] express that hope," said Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, who was to have led the delegation.

Not all members are accepting the drift away from congressional prerogatives. Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut traveled to Iraq last month despite administration objections. And the prospect of severe base closings in 2005 is already rousing some members of Congress to try to take back powers that were given to the Defense Department and an independent commission in 1988.

"We don't understand what the force structure will be, and that's not just a decision for the Defense Department, but for the Congress," says Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota during debate Tuesday. Congress gave away the authority to determine the timing of base closings he said, and Congress should be able to take it back. Some House Republicans are also looking for ways to retake some control of this process.

Early this month, a House panel voted to cancel the 2005 round, citing harm to local economies. In response, President Bush threatened to veto any bill that included such a provision. Last week, the House Armed Services Committee proposed a compromise that requires the Defense secretary to exempt half of the bases from closure.

Congress has also handed off some of its constitutional responsibilities to advise and consent on treaties and trade agreements. Beginning with the Ford administration, Congress has given presidents the right to negotiate trade agreements without the possibility of amendment. After a lapse in the 1990s, Congress narrowly renewed this "fast track" commitment last year.

Lawmakers are also letting budget procedures expire that were set up after Watergate, and later expanded, to rein in federal deficits.

One reason experts cite for this shift toward the presidency is the difficulty of finding agreement when the partisan balance on Capitol Hill is so close. "We're in a period of time when the polarization of Congress is so great that the institution as a whole doesn't seem to be able to reach conclusion on critical things," says Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University.

Experts also note changes in the culture on Capitol Hill, as members spend more time fundraising. "Congress no longer has an institutional sense," says Mr. Fisher. "Members ... don't have the time to spend here asking each other: Does this bother you?"

Still, some longtimers are fighting to preserve a strong Congress. Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia opposed granting Bush authority to use force in Iraq on constitutional grounds. He also led opposition to the presidential line-item veto in 1996 - a move later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

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