Power of Congress lies in red tape

Today, President Barack Obama is speaking at the Western Campus of Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, where he is expected to unveil a series of proposals designed to kick-start economic growth. Among them is this request to Congress: that it permanently extend a $100-billion research and development tax credit and a $50-billion infrastructure push that would create temporary employment and rebuild roads, airstrips and railways.

Alissa Masutani | Daily Trojan

Proposals like Obama’s are exactly the right type of government intervention in the current economy and are reminiscent of common policies in high-growth environments such as Brazil, Russia, India and China. Unfortunately, it seems the White House has caught on too late — it has only three more months to pass such legislation.

Republicans are expected to make massive gains in November’s midterm elections, after which they will likely block many Democratic initiatives. Republican leaders have been campaigning on the Democrats’ mishandling of the economy, but have been generally mute on what exact steps should be taken. Instead of taking a proactive approach, they will likely use their new strength in Congress to thwart governmental action in the economy to increase the Republican presidential candidate’s chances in 2012.

This obstructionist stance is in no way limited to Republicans. Instead, it is a structural characteristic of the opposition in American politics. Democrats behaved in a similar manner throughout the George W. Bush years and reaped the rewards in 2008. It is hypocritical of them to lament that Republicans might capitalize with the same tactic.

This is a permanent flaw in the American political system. Congress is powerful enough to block the executive’s agenda at will, and the constant campaigning that representatives must undertake because of biannual elections leads them to use that power to negative ends. Although solid policymaking requires a certain distance from the helter-skelter world of the 24-hour news cycle, legislators are forced to become populist screamers if they are to have a legitimate chance at job security.

In his book, From Wealth to Power, Fareed Zakaria (editor-at-large of Time magazine) used a case study of the United States from 1865 to 1908 to demonstrate the importance of executive supremacy over the legislature in a country’s ability to project power internationally. This was because of Congress’ reluctance to approve spending that would be unlikely to increase incumbents’ chances of re-election.

In the age of CNN, Rush Limbaugh and the blogosphere, the types of legislation that can pass Congress are restricted even further. Therefore, executive supremacy is not only a key to a state’s foreign policy power, but also its ability to effect economic and social change.

At the same time, the increasing ability of individual and particularly extreme fringe voices to influence the political environment seems to have created a shift away from executive supremacy. The increasing difficulty to pass legislation has made U.S. policy overly complicated and ineffective.

An example of this phenomenon can be seen in the health care bill passed earlier this year. That bill was 2,409 pages. The Social Security Act of 1935 was 64. The Constitution was four.

The bill ran as long as it did because as the administration tried to win over Congress, each compromise required more concessions. Unfortunately, though providing insurance to every American was an impressive achievement, the complications brought on by any 2,409-page piece of legislation are likely to overwhelm the benefits. Health care needed to be extended and simplified. Unfortunately, congressional obstructionism mandated that Obama choose one or the other.

This type of debacle can be contrasted with states that have strong executives. China is, of course, one example of this. The communist party’s grip on power has allowed decision-making to proceed extremely smoothly there for the past 20 years, facilitating astonishing growth rates. Clearly, China also demonstrates the flipside of the American dilemma — too much executive power leads to repression, a lack of human rights, and a lack of social and political expression.

A middle ground is still possible. Countries such as Brazil and England demonstrate that respect for human rights and public opinion can be maintained even when the executive branch has the power to pass smart and simple policies.

In 2008, Obama seemed to have the potential to move the United States closer to this more optimal balance of power between branches of government. Unfortunately, he seems to have neglected this duty and after the next elections, he will likely wish that he had not.

Daniel Charnoff is a senior majoring in international relations (global business). His column, “Through the Static,” runs Wednesdays.

8 replies
  1. Diane
    Diane says:

    And one more thought… (I like multiple posts LOL)… Brookings describes itself as non-partisan (not bipartisan, Jonny), but even Time, the NYT and the LA Times have described it as liberal or left-leaning. Know your sources.

    As for “working out what is in the bill” that should have been done before it was passed, no? Like Obama promised, it should have been out there for everyone to dissect before they rammed it through, no? What were they afraid of?

    Finally, that figure of 40 million uninsured is suspect. Our health care system was not broken; it was not perfect. Without repeal, it will certainly be worse now.

  2. Diane
    Diane says:

    Also, I fail to see how calling Glenn Beck a “whack job” contributes to the discussion. He has an excellent grasp of history and some strong viewpoints that again, align with a majority of Americans. Your venom buys us nothing.

  3. Diane
    Diane says:

    Jonny, there’s a reason there’s a big push for repeal of Obamacare. It is an unprecedented power grab by the federal government involving both intrusion into your personal liberties and (as has been increasingly admitted by the Democrats) soaring costs THAT OUR COUNTRY CAN’T AFFORD. Even if it was the best plan in the world, we can’t afford it, and so it’s out of the question. The fact that some Republicans agreed with it only shows why many of those same Republicans are also being voted out of office (as some already have been via the primaries).

  4. Jonny
    Jonny says:

    But Bob Dole wanted Republicans to back Obamacare. One of the ladies from Maine voted to get it out of committee. Why not try working out what is in the Bill, rather than rely on what whack-jobs like Glenn Beck tell you. Check out the bipartisan Brookings Institution’s Healthcare 101. Obamacare is about insuring more than 40 million people who were without health insurance (in the richest country in the world), trying to start to get a handle on health care cost inflation (see the OMB’s chart on projected costs under the old system), and providing some subsidies (by taxing unneccesarily subsidized Cadillac Plans- where he took on the unions) so that people could afford the plan. The old system was broken- check the WHO’s league tables on health systems.

  5. Diane
    Diane says:

    Oh and for the record — not wanting our government to be like China’s — thinking we need fewer laws/less regulation — and just saying no to Obamacare… these are not “far right.” These are in the absolute mainstream of American opinion, my friend. It is the leftist namecallers like yourself who are on the far fringe… so far out, you apparently can’t see clearly.

  6. Diane
    Diane says:

    Steve, what are you doing here being hateful by calling my legitimate comments “hate”? That’s so LEFT of you… presenting no arguments, relying on namecalling.

  7. Diane
    Diane says:

    I remain astonished by Daniel Charnoff’s naivete.

    First, the checks and balances are there for a reason. You are blaming THEM for a 2500 page healthcare bill? Or are you blaming the Republicans? Why not just blame Bush? What a crock of crap. Daniel, do you not understand that MOST Americans do not support the healthcare bill? That’s why Republicans (and some Democrats) kept saying “no.” Not to be “obstructionist” — BUT TO PREVENT BAD LAW. It’s not 2500 pages because of the Republicans — it’s 2500 pages because the number of pages of a bill is directly proportional to how bad it is. And, methinks the Dems were trying to hide some s**t in there, too.

    It’s terribly amusing that the first “strong executive” you point to is in China. I know, you went on to use England as an example, but England is of course far closer to our system than is China’s. Again, I find it sad that I must point this out to an “international relations” major, but we don’t want a “strong executive like in China” who can make law. That’s not his job, son. Have you that little appreciation for the amazing system of government that has served us so well in this country? Do international relations majors spend no time on that? That, too, is very sad. And if the “age of CNN and Rush Limbaugh” keeps everyone accountable — Daniel, that’s a really good thing. Or do you think it’s better if everything happens under the radar? How naive is that?

    Finally, you have an outright howler of a lie in this article. Republicans have not been generally mute on how to fix things. Numerous proposals and plenty of ideas are out there (ever listen to Rush? He’s offered a forum for quite a few ideas) — you, my young would-be policymaker, are not listening. From the “progressive” drivel you publish, I deduce that you don’t care to listen. Ironically, it’s all about stopping spending — which brings us back to why Republicans say “no.” Generally, we don’t need more laws. We need less.

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