Congressional Ambivalence

Congressional Ambivalence: The Political Burdens of Constitutional Authority

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Congressional Ambivalence
    Book Description:

    Is the United States Congress dead, alive, or trapped in a moribund cycle? When confronted with controversial policy issues, members of Congress struggle to satisfy conflicting legislative, representative, and oversight duties. These competing goals, along with the pressure to satisfy local constituents, cause members of Congress to routinely cede power on a variety of policies, express regret over their loss of control, and later return to the habit of delegating their power. This pattern of institutional ambivalence undermines conventional wisdom about congressional party resurgence, the power of oversight, and the return of the so-called imperial presidency.

    In Congressional Ambivalence, Jasmine Farrier examines Congress's frequent delegation of power by analyzing primary source materials such as bills, committee reports, and the Congressional Record. Farrier demonstrates that Congress is caught between abdication and ambition and that this ambivalence affects numerous facets of the legislative process.

    Explaining specific instances of post-delegation disorder, including Congress's use of new bills, obstruction, public criticism, and oversight to salvage its lost power, Farrier exposes the tensions surrounding Congress's roles in recent hot-button issues such as base-closing commissions, presidential trade promotion authority, and responses to the attacks of September 11. She also examines shifting public rhetoric used by members of Congress as they emphasize, in institutionally self-conscious terms, the difficulties of balancing their multiple roles. With a deep understanding of the inner workings of the federal government, Farrier illuminates a developing trend in the practice of democracy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7376-4
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction Congress and the Cycle of Ambivalence
    (pp. 1-22)

    Congress does not have a clear and consistent place in the separation of powers system. Sometimes members describe their own institution as having a pathological inability to deal with an important national issue and opt to suppress normal legislative processes and/or delegate power to another institution. At other times, members say that they regret their vote to sacrifice congressional power—or otherwise want to revisit the policy—because they do not approve of how the delegated powers were used later. As the epigraphs to this introduction imply, the George W. Bush years were especially difficult for Congress. However, these patterns...

  5. 1 Congressional Delegation of Power Efficient Strategy or Existential Tragedy?
    (pp. 23-44)

    Has Congress permanently lost its institutional place in the modern administrative state, or does it veer between purposeful moments of activity and hibernation? This question is important because the American version of representative democracy was not designed to be dominated by one branch on any policy subject for long periods of time. Unlike most parliamentary systems, the American separation of powers system established by the Constitution consists of competing layers of representation at the national level, shared powers among the branches, and staggered election timetables to promote nearly constant tension between diverse political perspectives. Two hundred and twenty years later,...

  6. 2 To Close or Not to Close, That Is the Question BRAC, 1988–2005
    (pp. 45-80)

    This chapter offers a new perspective on the twenty-year history of the base realignment and closure (BRAC) process. Though the rationale and mechanics of the process have been examined well by others, the complex before-and-after life of this series of delegation decisions deserves deeper attention. Using primarily public legislative history surrounding all five rounds, I argue that BRAC shows Congress’s cycle of institutional ambivalence. BRAC is a unique policy solution to a very complex problem of institutional differences on military policy. Even as each phase of the cycle plays out in its own political and policy context, this chapter connects...

  7. 3 A Freer Hand to Promote Free Trade Fast Track from Nixon to G. W. Bush
    (pp. 81-114)

    The evolution of international trade policy over the course of the twentieth century in the United States provides insight into the domestic politics of globalization, touching parties, interest groups, regions, and the separation of powers. This chapter will focus on the thirty-year history of fast-track congressional floor processes as a lens through which to view all these issues—especially the latter. Fast track is an expedited procedure to consider the passage of implementing legislation for certain trade agreements in the House and the Senate. When Congress authorizes the president to enter into future trade agreements, it can include fast-track language,...

  8. 4 Dramatic Circumstances, Dramatic Ambivalence Congress Post-9/11
    (pp. 115-160)

    While the USA PATRIOT Act and the Iraq War resolution emerged at a unique moment in American history, their background and aftermath follow the cycle of ambivalence pattern. As the previous chapters on base-closing commissions and fast-track trade processes show, the House and the Senate have long struggled with their roles as national lawmaking bodies composed of local and state representatives, and members juggle their local and national roles by veering from delegation to ambition. First, members throw off the weight of constitutional responsibility and legislative prerogatives in the face of a difficult decision that pits Congress’s traditional authority and...

  9. Conclusion The Rewards and Risks of Power Loss for Members and Institutional Balance
    (pp. 161-168)

    In recent decades, under different partisan regimes, Congress has delegated numerous powers and pared back its own prerogatives on policies spanning trade, base closings, war, and intelligence gathering. While not looking much like the institutional ambition assumed by James Madison, as articulated in theFederalistNo. 51, a vote for delegation may make perfect political sense in the short term from member, party, and institutional perspectives as Congress faces tough decisions whose effects can aggravate risk in the election that always seems to be around the corner. While acknowledging these assumptions, this book goes further, arguing that congressional delegation of...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 169-190)
  11. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 191-196)
  12. Index
    (pp. 197-211)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 212-212)