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Is Congress Really So Bad?

CONSERVATIVES used to think an overbearing executive power was the great threat to American political freedom. Now all we hear is that the executive is limited and hamstrung by an overweening, irrational Congress. A recent collection of essays is titled ``The Fettered Presidency'' - as if the president is some pitiful giant led in circles by a thousand gnats. If the Democrats owned the presidency and the Republicans the Congress, the story would change. Anyone who thinks otherwise is impossibly naive. Every roadblock to strange ``Dukakoid'' social legislation would be applauded, every obstacle in the budget ``process'' would be cheered for its fiscal discretion, and every congressional imposition on the Democrats' authority to make foreign policy would be praised. All the lessons of checks and balances would be relearned. We would be advised that Congress is supposed to make government difficult, not easy. The Republican congressional leader who cooperated with the Democrat's president would be scorned.

The places where Congress is accused of overreaching are all areas the legislature would be foolish and irresponsible to ignore. Government spends billions that affect local industry, finance, education, and welfare. Congress is blamed for viciously micromanaging whenever it departs from vapid criteria and actually tells the executive where to spend. But by what right do the president and his bureaucrats have sole authority to decide who gets these sums? What about the people's representatives?

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In foreign affairs, lovers of the executive convert the president's limited constitutional priority into magisterial preeminence, as if every legislative intervention is suspect. But why should Congress let the president's singular experience of China set the country's course, unopposed? Why should it permit the president alone to decide which countries receives how much aid? Even in appointments, where congressional cruelty turns the stomachs of honest men, the Senate's place is clearly constitutional.

The real difficulty with today's Congress is its failure to deliberate thoughtfully - not its usurping of presidential authority. The immediate reason for this failure is that it ignores regular procedures for bringing up and considering legislation. Important amendments to Senate bills are introduced and passed that few people have seen or understood. When legislation is passed, it is often bundled with other bills in a way that appears to force Congress and the president to take all or nothing. And all this comes after the original discussion of issues has been fragmented in hundreds of subcommittees. Tax legislation and omnibus appropriations bills are examples.

Calmer, more regular practices would require proponents of legislation to offer a reasoned case. This would make amendments that serve or harm narrow interests more difficult to pass. It would help focus attention on the specific procedures that actually regulate government activity. It would reduce Congress' penchant to be both too general and too particular. Congress would stay out of the executive's hair, but more carefully shape the style.

Unfortunately, the causes of congressional arbitrariness run deeper. Many of these causes affect the executive as well, though less profoundly. The scope of business is so vast that dazed abstraction and occasional arbitrary intervention seem the only way to handle it. Our media look so flighty and sensational that politicians believe that is the only way to talk to people - as if neither a sense of the subtleties of the common good. Colleges are debased, and few learn how a constitutional republic ought to operate. Political success often goes to the petty, the entrenched, and the narrow. Congress and the president abdicate the real work to bureaucracies and courts.

This picture can be overdrawn. Reagan's leadership, Bush's success, and a Congress that has worked with them demonstrates this. But these deeper causes of congressional difficulty suggest that restoring careful procedures would only be a first step. They wouldn't guarantee thoughtful deliberation. Indeed, even deliberation does not guarantee good results. When, for example, Congress apportions foreign aid country by country, as it does now, it works with specificity. Were it to give the executive complete discretion, or accept its suggestions without challenge, it would be too lazy. Were it to detail how each dollar is to be spent, it would interfere too much. But even though the level of Congress' involvement is correct, its judgment about how much to give is often wrong.

Congress can limit the executive successfully because its members are ambitious. No set of procedures can take the place of vigilance. But Congress stoops to posturing or narrowness when it foregoes procedures and thoughtful deliberation. Such deliberation will always encroach on bureaucracy and the White House more than its partisans desire, for thoughtful legislation and oversight must be specific.

The problem is not an overweening Congress, but an insufficiently deliberative one.

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