Friday, October 8, 2010

Ready to Govern?

I occasionally read DailyKos to keep abreast of what the left is thinking and also because they occasionally have valid criticism that we should take seriously. Today, David Waldman speculates about how the GOP might behave if it came up a few seats short of taking control of the House of Representatives. He speculates that they might try to flip a few Blue Dogs to the Republican side. You can read the whole thing here. But what caught my eye was the criticism that the Republicans don't take seriously the legislative branch. There is some bombast mixed with truth in this argument.

And just to add a twist, I wonder whether House Republicans really want it. There's a good argument for why Republicans might do best politically by falling just short of enough seats to actually have to govern. There's certainly no indication from their campaign "pledge" document that they've got anything concrete in mind, anyhow, so they might do just as well to play the frustrated minority in what they'll portray as an evenly-divided country, in the hopes of making a credible bid for the White House in 2012.

After all, in truth, Republicans don't believe much in the power of the legislative branch. That, too, is evidenced by their lack of specificity in their pledge. They're pretty solidly dedicated to executive primacy, especially when they hold the executive. Recall that in the 40+ years since electing Nixon (whose executive primacy doctrine it is they still adhere to), Republicans have held the White House more than twice the amount of time as have Democrats.

Even when they don't hold the White House, they still believe in a kind of executive primacy, which is why it's so very important to them to spend their energy as legislators not legislating, but working to undermine the legitimacy of any Democratic executive. It's more important that people have doubts about Bill Clinton's finances or personal life, or Barack Obama's birth or religion, than that they actually promulgate policy ideas. No matter who wins the White House, most Republican legislators put all their focus on the executive branch: rubber stamping it as a Politburo when the President is a Republican, and opposing and undermining it when the President is a Democrat. Even when the President is a Democrat who proposes adopting what were once Republican ideas.

I don't agree with everything written above, but a few things stand out. First, Republicans have in fact advanced theories of Presidential power that have not been faithful to the constitution. Perhaps facing a Democrat president, should they retake the legislative branch, they will find a new found conviction in asserting the prerogatives of the House and Senate. Some of Bush's extra-legal actions handed Barack Obama precedent to continue to expand Presidential power. (By extra-legal I mean acts that were not illegal per se, but which the President had not been granted specific power by law; the first attempt at military tribunals for example.)

Further, the Republicans need to think seriously about how they set the agenda, even though the President has some built in advantages. Control of the budget is the most obvious way to reshape a smaller federal government. Republicans learned the wrong lesson from 1995, when their showdown with Clinton resulted in cratering poll numbers. Clinton was able to tag the Congress with the blame for the shut down, when he was the one vetoing the spending bills. There are a number of ways to avoid that outcome if one plans ahead. Appropriations can be passed in a manner to address this, or one could just pass continuing resolutions at reduced funding levels to keep essential services alive. Finally, one could start educating the public ahead of time about the issue. Times have changed, the people are more informed, there are more channels to educate the public on the need to reduce spending and they are ready to listen. The first place to start would be with earmarks.

If the Republicans are serious about being the party of small government, then part of that promise has to be seriously examining the executive branch and reigning in its power.

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