COMMENTARY: Let’s hear it for governmental checks and balances

  • Bonnie Kristian
3:36 p.m Thursday, April 6, 2017 Opinion

“You gotta keep in mind who he works for,” Congressman Ted Yoho said of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes in a recent interview on MSNBC. “He works for the president. He answers to the president.”

The conversation was about Nunes’ investigation into President Donald Trump’s wiretapping claims and alleged connections to Russia, and anchor Craig Melvin wasn’t about to let it go unchallenged. “Does he?” Melvin replied. “Or does he work for the constituents in the district?”

Yoho backtracked. “Well, you do both,” he said. “But when you’re in that capacity — you know, if you’ve got information — I’m OK with what he did.”

After facing criticism, Yoho backtracked further still. The Florida representative “misspoke,” said a statement from his office a few hours after the interview. “He knows that every member is here because of the people that voted them into office.” Congress works for “constituents and not for the President.”

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True enough, and good for Yoho — who historically has displayed a stronger grasp of the Constitution than the average member of Congress — for quickly correcting the record. Still, what he said was blatantly wrong, and Melvin was right to challenge it.

I wonder, however, if that challenge would have come so readily were Trump not the occupant of the White House. I don’t mean that as a criticism of Melvin or as a partisan point.

Rather, I’m thinking about this as a larger question. If we had any other president — Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton — who took a more conventional approach to governance than Donald J. Trump, would anyone have batted an eye at the suggestion that the president’s fellow party members in Congress do his bidding? I’m not so sure.

And as unfortunate as Yoho’s statement was, it actually suggests a positive side to the Trump administration, whatever one thinks of its policies. Much as Trump has cast new attention on the overgrowth of the imperial executive, so it seems he is drawing renewed interest to the checks and balances of our constitutional system. Americans are increasingly noticing that the presidency is way too powerful, and the Yoho episode suggests this fresh scrutiny extends to the federal balance of power more broadly.

That’s good news, and much overdue. Our Constitution is not perfect, but its division of powers — a structural effort to keep elected officials in check — is something it got very right.

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In recent decades, executive strength has been accompanied by legislative atrophy. Congress most certainly does not work for the president, but it often acts as if it does. We regularly hear of Congress being tasked with executing “the president’s agenda,” but constitutionally, it is the president who is supposed to administer the agenda set by Congress, not vice versa.

The location of lawmaking authority in the legislature was not a mistake or archaic convention, whatever our modern rule by fiat (er, executive order) may imply. Though certainly nowhere near as representative as it once was (that’s in terms of the ratio of constituents to representatives; obviously the opposite is true in terms of universal suffrage), Congress’ sheer size means it is inevitably more in touch with the diverse and often divergent political preferences of the American people.

That means two things. First, though hardly a mirror of public opinion — Sen. Rand Paul is fond of saying Congress is about a decade behind the public, which is probably right — 535 representatives from all over the country inevitably have a better awareness of what their constituents want.

And second, our legislative branch is slow. Don’t let the griping about a “do-nothing Congress” fool you: this is a feature, not a bug. Representing different constituencies means members of Congress are at loggerheads more often than not. This can seem aggravating — think about how often representatives you like are frustrated in their goals, but then think too about how often representatives you don’t like are frustrated in goals you don’t share.

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As President Calvin Coolidge said, “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.” And it is much easier to kill bad bills than it is to kill bad executive orders, which, as we’ve seen vividly of late, can be tossed off at great speed and on a single man’s whim.

“The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted,” said James Madison, the father of the Constitution. Whatever else the Trump administration does, I’m glad to see Americans regaining that distrust.

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