Live from CPAC: Fed Up with Executive Power? Blame Congress!

At today’s CPAC, George Will; Washington Times Editor David Keene; and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) sought to address executive power and out of control federal spending. Rather than standard criticism of the president, the panelists—particularly Senator Coburn—took a fairly unusual position: blame Congress.

The argument may not, on its surface, be an obvious one. If presidential power is out of control, shouldn’t we blame…well…the president? Sure the exercise of presidential power rests with the White House and all the panelists were quick to blame the chief executive. George Will noted that President Obama has “taken…preexisting trends—bad ones—and made it worse.” He went on to call for the “proper institutional modesty of the executive branch.”

Sen. Coburn, however, argued that while the president’s actions deserve criticism, “poor work ethic in Congress” is just as much to blame. He passionately asked, “Where’s the work we’re paid to do to protect the Constitution?” Keene spoke of presidents of both parties “building a super administrative state.” An administrative state that was eventually called the “vast, sprawling, metastasizing blob of American bureaucracy.” That bureaucracy, of course, grew because of the direct or indirect blessing of the Congress of the United States.

Coburn explained the problem was a “Congress (that) fails to do oversight” and a “Congress (that’s) not specific enough” in its lawmaking.

Senator Coburn is spot on. Presidential power can expand for a variety of reasons, but Congress often cedes power to the Executive, laying the foundation for presidents—of both parties—to expand their own power and that of the executive branch. Coburn’s call to have Congress reclaim its power may not be an easy one, or even a popular one, but it is a starting point for all those angry about the use of executive orders, signing statements, regulatory power, etc.

At FixGov blog, we have noted for some time that Presidents succeed wherever Congress lets them. This is true with federal spending power, regulatory power, and a host of policy areas in which many presidents issue executive orders (or other executive actions).

Coburn essentially argued for greater specificity, capacity, and energy within Congress. This call should resonate not just with his fellow Republicans, but with Democrats as well. Most people resent presidential power when the president exercising it comes from the opposing party. This is what Keene called the “danger of changing the arrangements to benefit you when you’re in power.”

Can Congress reclaim all its lost power? Surely no. There is much done at the federal level that requires time, staff, expertise that can be found in a bureaucracy that is substantially larger than the legislative branch and its staff. However, Congress can offer greater guidance, detail and clarity, less discretion, and broader oversight to advance its own interests. That is, when Congress isn’t mired in dysfunction and gridlock.

It is not remarkable that David Keene, George Will, and Tom Coburn got it right on this issue; they’re all smart men who have been in Washington for quite some time. What is remarkable is that rather than throwing a friendly crowd the standard red meat that condemns President Obama, they largely asked CPAC participants to look at their own representatives and senators when pointing the fingers of blame about executive power.