Could this year’s election revive the First Branch?
Leaving aside the relative merits of the candidate himself and the platform he espouses, one interesting prism through which to view a potential Trump presidency, which would be unprecedented in so many ways, is what effect it could have on our basic institutions of governance. Namely, might it provide Congress with the political incentives to rebuild itself?
Our national legislature, as observers on the right, left, and center have detailed, has willingly and voluntarily diminished itself in recent decades. Congress regularly has delegated its constitutional authorities to the executive. But the arrival at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW of a relatively uncompromising outsider whom lawmakers mistrust just might reverse that trend.
For his part, Trump may have provided a preview of the kinds of relations he intends to have with Congress during last night’s victory speech, when he said of the speaker of the House:
Paul Ryan, I don’t know him well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him, and if I don’t– he’s gonna have to pay a big price.
Mind you, that’s what he says about the man who would be the second-most-powerful figure of his own party. It’s probably fair to say this sort of approach likely wouldn’t go down well in Congress as a whole.
Even more than other recent presidents, President Trump could have great difficulty assembling a cooperative caucus. Democrats would have obvious reasons not to embrace him, and it remains unclear just how many Republicans will fall in line. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., had pledged that he will not support Trump as a nominee under any circumstances and would even leave the party if Trump prevails. That’s just one data point, but it’s clear such sentiments are being discussed broadly by party leaders.
All of which could mean two things. First, perhaps we will see an end to congressional majorities’ recent quasi-parliamentary behavior of dutifully carrying the president’s water (see Barack Obama’s Democratic Congress of 2009 to 2011 and George W. Bush’s Republican Congress of 2005 to 2007). Again, it’s not clear that Trump would be viewed by many members of Congress or the public as a “Republican,” as that label has come to be understood. On Capitol Hill, he could well be seen as an “enemy,” as his executive actions and legislative proposals might antagonize Democrats and Republicans alike.
And this brings up a second and related point: the incentives for the majorities and minorities in the two chambers to savage each other in hopes of triumphing in the next election might decline. Should the president be a figure with whom neither party wants to bargain, Congress would have little choice but to pull together and assert its Article I powers, or be steamrolled. The only person guaranteed to win if Congress continued to bicker in its usual way would be the president. This would leave the parties in a prisoner’s dilemma, but one that could be solved through cooperative action.
There are those who fear the prospect of a Trump presidency, but talk of his being a “threat to democracy” is overwrought. The U.S. Constitution grants Congress wide powers to check an imperious executive, including, in the extreme, impeachment. Perhaps a Trump victory in November’s election would even be the spark to ignite Congress to behave like the forceful, responsible legislature intended by the Founders.