Yuval Levin wrote an op-ed in for the New York Times titled What if Congress Were in Charge, Not Trump? Levin argues that under the US constitutional system, the legislature is the primary branch of government. The legislature sets the rules. The executive executes them. The judiciary interprets them. The executive and judiciary can shape and chip away. But, quoting historian Gary Wills, “No matter what the sequence of action among the three departments, if the process is played out to the end, Congress always gets the last say (if it wants it).”
Or as James Madison wrote: “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — about how we have allowed ourselves to get pulled into the cult of personality centered on the dominant myth of the individual, the belief that a singular individual — in this context, the President — is going to solve our problems. It feels like abdication and it’s definitely not how our system was intended to operate.
To be clear, this was every bit the problem with Obama as it is with Trump. And that’s the challenge. Because at this point no reasonable person can argue with a straight face that Barack Obama was not a better president than Donald Trump — a better figurehead tasked with carrying out the role of President and all its attendant institutional pomp and seriousness. But plenty of reasonable people dispute who is the better legislator. Because somehow we have allowed the president to annex legislative power.
Trump — or, depending on your politics, Obama — would be far less of a threat if Congress were researching, drafting, debating, and passing its own laws instead of seeing them handed down and jammed through by the President.
We’ve stumbled into believing in the power of the individual to solve all of our problems, to produce singular results, to generate singular ideas. But that individual is a myth. That individual for all of his charisma and brilliance is only one of countless who make any meaningful thing happen.
Which brings us back to the legislature. For pockets of very productive time in US history the country has been lead by its law makers. Compromise may not always work, but often it does. When the country comes to understand that great things are accomplished by working together the legislature is ascendant. When the legislature is ascendant America improves. Not universally, of course. Not inevitably. But most of the time.
Aside from the breakdown in democratic law making, it is also an absurd vulnerability to hang so much on the shoulders of one individual. Even if you’re the type of person who believes that a singular point of power is preferable for producing efficient outcomes, the risks in a singular point of power are outrageous. Not merely physical risks — assassination, medical emergencies — but more importantly the cultural and systemic risks. Pick the wrong guy once and it all ends. A system that heaps power onto one individual is fragile.
There may be times where singular power makes sense. In cases of war for survival, say. But we are not at war — not a war that requires singular focus. Efficiency of execution is not essential to our survival. This is not a time where a single individual for the sake of critical efficiency must dominate.
A lot has been said about how Congress now outsources its research and drafting to lobbyists. That’s a serious concern. But to an even greater extent Congress outsources research, drafting, and agenda setting to the executive branch and its agencies. It’s a mistake.
Levin presents smart proposals for reform. They’re worth taking seriously. It’s time for Congress to snatch power back from the President, resume law making, and return primacy to its proper place.