When you read the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, you can see how clearly the Founders understood a single moral maxim—power corrupts. Having just thrown off the yolk of a king they could not elect and a parliament they did not select, they were keenly concerned that no single person could dominate the new American government.
Their solution was of course the checks and balances that we’re taught in high school civics. Presidents can veto Congress. The House and Senate can override vetoes. Courts can invalidate unconstitutional legislation. Each branch has only the powers granted it in the Constitution. Critically, however, the branches were not “co-equal.” Each could check the other, but at the end of the day, Congress—the branch closest to the people—was supreme.
Think about it. Not only can Congress override vetoes, it has the sole power of the purse (thus it can fund or defund any operation of government), through impeachment and conviction it can fire a president or any member of the Supreme Court, and it has the sole power to declare war. But if Trump’s presidency taught us anything, it’s that Congress is neutered. It’s neutered by its own long, voluntary legal decline and by increasing partisanship.
And so, now, one single person can dominate American government. And when that single person has the moral character of a man like Donald Trump, he can place immense strains on the American republic.
To make this concrete, Brookings Institution senior fellow Jonathan Rauch recently documented multiple ways the Trump presidency exposed the tangible degradation of our constitutional structure. Not only is impeachment now completely ineffective as a check on presidential abuses of power, it’s also clear that presidents can ignore congressional subpoenas, redirect dollars appropriated by Congress to advance presidential priorities, and make appointments without the advice and consent of the Senate.
But not all of this is Donald Trump’s fault. He stepped into a system that was ripe for exploitation. Over the course of decades Congress had delegated an immense amount of its power to the presidency, creating sprawling executive agencies and granting them broad regulatory authority to write their own laws. Courts then amplified the power of these executive agencies by deferring to their own interpretations of their own rules.
Multiple presidents assumed for themselves the power to declare war, by both launching military engagements without Congressional consent and by stretching existing Congressional authorizations (such as the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Force) beyond their intended scope.
And what did Congress do? Nothing. Even before Trump’s term, Congress had increasingly become, in my colleague Jonah Goldberg’s memorable words, a “parliament of pundits.” Members of the House and Senate sought to become famous through cable news hits, Twitter trolling, and punchy podcast appearances. They have opinions about everything, yet they do nothing.
Now, let’s overlay that abdication of authority with the disturbing rise of partisan polarization in the U.S. As the president grows in power, the stakes of presidential elections rise, and the purpose of partisans in Congress is reduced to a simplistic binary—support (or oppose) the person in the Oval Office.
That’s exactly why overwhelming majorities of Republicans knew their job was to vote to against Donald Trump’s impeachment and acquittal—even though his lies about the election, his incitements at the January 6th rally, and his failure to speak out immediately against the violence when it was clear the Capitol was being breached put their lives in danger.
When an entire party in Congress is that prostrate before the president, we know the constitutional order is upside down. The Founders great fears have been realized.
What’s to be done? Absent systemic reform, we’re left with few good options. “Elect better presidents” is a hope, not a plan. “Burn down the GOP” to punish it for its loyalty to Trump is a Twitter meme, not a realistic political possibility. The country is simply too divided for any one party to “crush” the other. And if one party is truly crushed, then it increases the concentration of American power.
Fortunately, thoughtful Americans on both sides of the political aisle are waking up to the grave nature of our constitutional challenge. Writing in National Review, Yuval Levin—from the conservative American Enterprise Institute—has proposed a “generations-long” effort to revitalize Congress to “better represent the political diversity of the country and to function as an arena for bargaining and accommodation.”
My friends at Protect Democracy, led by former Obama administration attorney Ian Bassin, have proposed a comprehensive set of reforms, including reforms designed to restore Congress’s authority over war powers.
What are some of the ideas in play? They include expanding the House to bring members closer to the people, increase the ideological diversity of the chamber, and render the electoral college (which is based on number of representatives added to the number of senators) more representative. Ranked-choice voting can temper the influence of ideological extremes.
The judicial branch can and should reverse decades of unfortunate and constitutionally-unsound precedent have granted the executive branch enormous amounts of both legislative and judicial authority.
The problem, of course, is that arguments about structural reforms and fights over obscure Supreme Court precedents don’t set Twitter on fire, nor do they do much for cable news ratings. But it’s necessary to restore the intended balance of power in Washington D.C. or we’ll continue to place too much trust in the character and competence of the president. The stakes of presidential elections will only continue to grow.
The bottom line is that his or her power is our peril. The Founders never intended us to trust our presidents so completely. Power corrupts. It can corrupt the person behind the Resolute Desk, but it can also corrupt the republic itself. We were built to resist a king, but unless we restore decades of congressional decline, a king is what we’ll have.