Congress bows to pen and phone

President Joe Biden has proved that, if nothing else, he has a pen and a phone.

According to The Economist, he signed more executive orders in his first two days than President Donald Trump signed in nearly his first two months. And he was just getting started.

Republicans have no standing to complain about Biden’s spate of unilateral measures, given their acquiescence in Trump’s use of exactly the same means. But presidents of both parties governing this way doesn’t makes it worse, not better.

Some executive actions starkly usurp congressional authority, while others are firmly within the executive’s ambit. Yet the sheer amount of activity presidents undertake on their own isn’t in keeping with the spirit of our constitutional system.

The presidency has overawed a legislative branch that is only too willing to sign over power and responsibility. Congress has been an eager participant in its own neutering.

James Madison thought the legislature would be insatiable, steadily accumulating power. Instead, it is the least self-respecting branch, led by people who identify with the interests of presidents and their own parties over and above the interests of their own institution.

This means that Congress is essentially cut out of the action on important questions of national policy.

Obama blocked the Keystone XL pipeline, Trump blessed it, and Biden blocked it again.

Obama took us into the Paris climate accord, Trump took us out, and Biden took us back in.

Consider what Biden did on his own the other day:

He directed the Interior Department to stop new oil and gas leases on federal land and to identify steps to double renewable energy production by 2030. He established a Justice Initiative to steer 40% of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities. He created a special presidential envoy for climate, a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, a National Climate Task Force, a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative, an Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, and a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

And on the seventh day, Biden rested — after tucking his pen back into his pocket.

If Congress had passed a bill doing all this, it’d be considered a pretty active day. Instead, Congress stood on the sidelines —  and commented.

“I’m proud that President Biden is announcing a slew of executive actions on climate,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted. His only complaint was that Biden wasn’t doing more on his own authority.

This is the same Chuck Schumer who took a seat in the New York State Assembly in 1975, joined the U.S. House in 1981, moved to the U.S. Senate in 1999, and recently ascended to majority leader, representing the apex of his lengthy legislative career. Yet Schumer urged Biden to also declare a national climate emergency, because it would allow him to do more “without legislation.”

This would be like Chief Justice John Roberts giving Biden advice on how to pack the Supreme Court — except it’s unimaginable that a Supreme Court justice would be so openly disdainful of the legitimacy and prerogatives of his or her own institution.

This is a particular congressional disease.

As Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in an essay for Commentary magazine, Congress has been delegating its authority to the executive branch for some time. What’s new is that partisanship has created a loyalty for members of Congress that transcends their attachment to Congress itself, while more and more members consider their office merely a platform to get attention.

“Congress is weak and dysfunctional because that suits its members,” Levin writes. “It could renew itself only if its members wanted such renewal.”

All indications are that, no, it is perfectly content to be supplanted by the pen and phone.

Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review, a journal of conservative opinion. His column is syndicated through King Features.


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