In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Prof. Arkes recalls an earlier era in which a robust congressional agenda with Republican leadership shaped the direction of the country. The piece, published in NRO, is titled, “Bring Back That ‘Do-Nothing Republican Congress.’”
“Writers have been trying to compare the political situation now to that of other times when a Republican president came in with a Republican Congress. The freshmen this year at Amherst were born during the year of Bill Clinton’s troubles over Monica Lewinsky, and so they may not have much historical perspective on the matter. But for those of us who are much older, the most appealing analogy may not be Eisenhower coming in with a Republican Congress in 1953, or Harding in 1921, ready to roll back the wartime controls on wages and prices. The most apt analogy, remembered with fondness, was the Congress that did such wondrous work in that glorious year of 1947.
“That was the Congress that Harry Truman later libeled as the ‘Do-Nothing Congress.’ The libel was deepened because it was such a manifest lie: That Congress had been dramatically productive. That was the first Republican Congress voted in since the New Deal, and the first post-war Republican Congress. It had been elected with the leading slogan of “Had Enough?” Had enough, that is, of the wartime controls, with rationing of food and tires, and with rent controls begetting a massive shortage of housing. The state of life under the controls was revealed in Walter Winchell’s ditty: ‘Roses are red / Violets are blue / Sugar is sweet — remember?’ And there had been Bob Hope’s joke about the Secret Service protecting President Roosevelt: When FDR traveled by car, there were four guards, at each corner of the car — ‘one for each tire.’
“Barack Obama and his party made a virtual nullity of the separation of powers. Obama was willing to govern — with his party in Congress willing to become complicit in this mode of governing — through executive orders that bore at times no thread of connection to any statute that would give them the color of legal authority. The mystery here is why it took 220 years and Barack Obama to show how the scheme in the Federalist Papers could virtually subvert itself: The same Madisonian system that made it hard to gather a majority in a plural body in order to legislate also made it hard to summon a majority to resist a president who was willing to be quite brazen in extending his authority without the benefit of any authorizing statutes. And that became decisively the case when the members of the president’s party in Congress gave up any sense of the institutional interests they might have, as members of Congress, to preserve the powers of Congress. But with this new, unencumbered way of governing, the federal power was extended to bring more domains of the private economy under political direction from the center. And, once loosed, there was no containing it or even noticing the limits: The federal power could be flexed in claiming power over wetlands, closing down coal plants, or doing in the bondholders of General Motors. It will require now a surge of governance, equally focused and determined, to bring the American regime back to some semblance of what it was meant to be. That is the mission now of this new coupling of a Republican Congress and a president willing to sign its measures into law.”
Read the whole piece here.