The Future of Congress

Sam Jenkins is a guest writer on Blake's Take. Sam is from Tampa, Florida and currently resides a couple hours north in the swamp known as Gainesville, Florida. He not only writes but engages in our democracy as a citizen, organizer and a student senator at the University of Florida (UF). He is currently pursuing his undergraduate degree in Political Science from UF. You can follow him on Twitter here.

When 70% of Americans analyze Congress, they think, “Damn, they’re bad.” Americans largely disapprove of Congress because Congress is not doing their fundamental job. To start, they can’t pass any legislation to fix any of the major problems of the country. For example, old people are getting older – and their social security is getting more expensive. However, the United States financial system can’t sustain their growing burden. Despite this situation, Congress won’t even show a semblance of leadership to hear the “tough” issues like this one as they continue to kick the multiple, vital cans down the road.

Also, Congress won’t check the Executive Branch’s overreach. Since the 19thcentury, the president’s power has grown both through soft power like influence and hard power like unilateral orders. For example, President Obama authorized drone warfare that killed hundreds of civilians around the world. Yet, Congress, whose supposed to declare war, only watched. Additionally, President Trump is undermining the rule of law by politicizing the Department of Justice. Yet, Congress, whose supposed conduct oversight of the Executive Branch, is aiding and abetting in his destruction. In a Hollywood parallel, the president is to Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War” as Congress is to the Avengers. However, in this case, the Avengers slept in while Thanos did all his work.

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution would have been disappointed with the current, 115thCongress. They envisioned a powerful Congress that could function as responsive and responsible representative body. For example, the 89thCongress passed the Voting Rights Act, which enfranchised hundreds of thousands of black people after centuries of obstacles in front of the polls. This sweeping legislation was not easy nor comfortable politically. However, Congress did it. The Framers also envisioned a tenacious Congress that could conduct oversight and check the president. For example, during the Vietnam War, Congress passed the War Powers Act, which mandated the president to consult Congress on the number of troops sent into war. Congressional checks are similar to the TV commercial about the “Most Interesting Man in the World,” who says, “I don’t drink beer often but when I do, I drink Dos Equis.” Congress doesn’t always check the president but when they do, they check hard.

When taking a step back from the day to day politics, I think Congress must restrain the power-seeking executive while retaining the power to make policy. First, the growing power of the president should worry everyone because it continues to grow without regard to president’s party affiliation. For example, one might really like the current Republican president so they want the executive to have more power. However, that same person is really not going to like the next Democratic president when they have all that power. These wild swings from hyper liberal to hyper conservative aren’t good because they erode trust in our democratic institutions. Therefore, Congress must act because the United States Supreme Court, the other co-equal branch of government, does not have the popular authority to check the president.

Second, Congress must be able to create policy. To start, the president must not create policy unilaterally with Congress as a rubber stamp because this leads to poor policy. For example, a national government with a president and a majority Congress of the same party can shove through legislation without room for compromise. Alternatively, compromise breeds more inclusive and thoughtful policy. For example, Congress can deliberate efficiently through debates and research effectively through hearings to create sound policy. Moreover, Congress can take the time to not only understand the past but also adequately weigh future consequences. Finally, Congress’ ability to make policy is important for democratic trust. For example, Congress members are responsible and accountable to the people that elected them and the country as a whole. Therefore, Congress members will enact policies that affect positive change because they are not only worried about elections, but they are also worried about the well being of their constituents.

Finally, there must be two broad changes to the electoral system to improve Congress. First, the campaign finance system must be reformed. Often large amounts money from a small number of people dictates policy because congressional members cannot be elected without money. Additionally, many people are excluded from holding public office because they do not have the personal wealth to effectively campaign without a salary. Likewise, they don’t have the connections to raise the amount of money needed to win. Second, gerrymandering, or the drawing of maps for political purposes, must be reformed. This skewed process strengthens party leadership because elections are fought within the primary, not the general election. It also lessens the people’s voice because the district’s outcome is already decided. Both measures would make Congress a more resilient institution and, therefore, stronger for the nation.

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