Since arriving in the U.S. Senate in 2011, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has made many of his colleagues crazy. Unwilling to go along to get along, Lee has called out publicly our nation’s legislature for its profligacy and habit of showing up for work barely half the year. Six months into his time in office, Lee published a book advocating a balanced-budget amendment. All of which offended the stuffed shirts who think of their chamber as“the most exclusive club.”
The Senate has a habit of grinding down nonconformists. Chamber leaders and committee heads have plenty of tools to neuter the legislative ambitions and generally marginalize black sheep.
To date, Sen. Lee has refused to keep quiet. Last year, he published another book, a jeremiad dubbed Our Lost Constitution. And two weeks ago, he unveiled the “Article 1 Project at Hillsdale College’s D.C. outpost. A1P, as it is being hash-tagged, aims to unite Senate and House members to claw back power over the purse and to rein in executive-branch regulators.
It’s a worthy endeavor. Congress, for all its faults, is the most democratic of the three branches. It comprises 535 individuals chosen by voters to represent their interests. Congress —not the president or the judiciary— is the branch that is most connected to the average Joe. On paper, it is the mightiest branch. The Constitution’s Article I gives Congress “all legislative power,” and empowers it to set the value of money, regulate interstate commerce and declare war.
Yet the executive branch has displaced Congress in our constitutional scheme. Presidents, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, have snatched away much legislative power. But as Yuval Levin has observed, Congress mostly has diminished itself: “[M]embers (of both parties) would rather avoid responsibility for hard policy choices.” Levin notes that our lawmakers have fallen into a parliamentary mindset: members of the president’s party will carry his water and allow him to do via executive action what they should be doing via legislation.
Unbelievably, Congress has shoveled larger and larger piles of funding to the executive branch and, simultaneously, weakened itself by cutting legislative-branch staff. Today, the United States has an executive branch that can do just about anything it pleases, over the objections of the people’s representatives, and sometimes to spectacularly bad effect.
But maybe things have gone so far that a counter-movement is rising. Nine other members of Congress have lent their names to Lee’s A1P effort. There also are other groups at work in Washington on this very issue. The Federalist Society has its own Article I project, which hopes to reconceptualize the role of a member of Congress the same way the group did the role of judges. When my think tank partnered with both conservative and liberal tanks to host a Capitol Hill event on strengthening Congress last autumn, more than 100 congressional staff and others attended. Bills have been introduced to reassert congressional authority over regulation and spending.
It will take a lot of work to “make Congress great again.” A strong Congress needs many legislators who care about the institution and aggressively deploy its immense powers. Such institutionalists tend to be few, notes Louis Fisher, a constitutional scholar who served Congress for four decades. Most congressmen feel they will not get re-elected for defending Article I or the Constitution.
So it all comes back to “we, the people.” If we don’t tell our legislators to stand up for Article I, they probably won’t.