Presidential Restraint and Congress

As a part of my Whig Liberalism, I believe that Congressional supremacy is part of the Constitutional design of our system and I consider Andrew Jackson a villain of history and good governance insofar as he was able to go farther than any other president to reverse this proper ordering. The array of images, gestures and protocols that presidents have at their disposal to reify this Constitution-turned-upside-down version of tripartite government is myriad.

Among them, and one that constantly annoys me, is the protocol of congress-president relations. The president deigns to speak to Congress once a year, and then only as a pretext for a television spot; the president is never required to submit to Congressional questioning; when the president wants to influence Congress, he stays put at 1600 and sends some flunkey down Pennsylvania Avenue; but when Congress wants to deal with the president, not just some charging, but the members themselves go, and then not some junior Representative, but only the highest ranking members are allowed to participate. It sends a clear signal of executive supremacy and Congressional supplicancy. The king keeps his court. Presidential aloofness is a show of presidential authority.

I have been impressed with President Obama’s first week in office. On Wednesday he suspended military tribunals; on Thursday he ordered the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, acts of confidence in the U.S. judicial system to handle these issues and a surrendering by the executive of the power of judgment and justice to its proper place in the Constitutional order. One branch accuses, another adjudicates: that is the division of powers. Also on Wednesday he ordered full compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and rescinded former President Bush’s order allowing the executive branch to resist normal declassification of presidential records. (Glaberson, William, “Obama Orders Halt to Prosecutions at Guantánamo,” The New York Times, 21 January 2009; Mazzetti, Mark , “Obama Issues Directive to Shut Down Guantánamo,” The New York Times, 22 January 2009, p. A1; Stolberg, Sheryl Gay, “On First Day, Obama Quickly Sets a New Tone,” The New York Times, 22 January 2009, p. A1)

But of the things that have impressed me so far, none has done so much as his visit to Congress today to meet with the Republican caucus to explain, to answer questions and to advocate for the administration’s stimulus plan (Zeleny, Jeff, “Obama Visits Capitol to Press Republicans on Stimulus Plan,” The New York Times, 27 January 2009). This is how a president should behave toward Congress: as a co-equal branch.

I fear that Congressional Republicans plan on dealing the Obama administration a souring lesson on partisan intransigence in Washington, D.C. and that the administration will revert to presidential maximalism, but I hope (there’s that word again) that this is the start of a presidency of true consultation and of executive restraint. Such an example would be an accomplishment of its own.