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Point of View: Why Congress should reclaim its constitutional role

Mickey Edwards
Mickey Edwards

Since my nearly two decades representing Oklahoma in Congress, I have enjoyed teaching college students about the U.S. Constitution — not only what it says but why it says what it does. I’ve focused not only on the importance the Founders placed on our rights as citizens but why that led them to make Congress the first and most important branch of government, empowered as “the people’s branch” to lead on deciding how to spend taxpayers’ money and when and whether to go to war.

More and more, I’ve come to realize that the separation of powers I have taught no longer describes the way our government functions. The modern presidency had become a giant centrifuge, sucking power from Congress — often because Congress meekly and even willingly abandons its constitutional responsibilities, fundamentally breaking the system of checks and balances so central to our Constitution.

The erosion of powers from the people’s branch been a bipartisan problem and trend that has taken place under Democratic and Republican administrations and Congresses. And in the process, the people’s representatives, and therefore the people themselves, have lost a voice on critical national security issues.

These separation of powers issues are not merely academic topics. Instead, they go right to questions that should matter to every American — who decides when American men and women are sent into danger, who controls how taxpayer money is spent, who sets trade policy? Is the president a president or a king? Is the Congress the voice of the citizen or the tool of a political party?

All presidents naturally try to exercise as much unilateral authority as they can get away with. It’s the job of Congress to ensure that citizens do not lose the power the Founders gave them through their legislative surrogates. That’s why I am heartened to see the recent bipartisan momentum behind the idea of restoring the constitutional role of Congress on matters of national security. And why I’m so pleased to see the lead role played by the ranking member of the House Rules Committee, Oklahoma’s Tom Cole.

From coronavirus to the Democratic primary to the fact that at OU and OSU, the spring game is only a month away, it’s understandable if your attention wasn’t focused on a recent congressional committee hearing on a random Tuesday morning. But if you had been following the recent Rules Committee hearing on the role of constitutional checks and balances, you would have seen something remarkable: actual bipartisanship on display in a committee that is typically one of the more partisan in Congress.

Under the leadership of Cole and his Democratic counterpart, Jim McGovern, that remarkable hearing explored the erosion of Congress’s Article 1 authorities. As Cole said at the hearing’s opening, “When our Founders envisioned the 'Grand American Experiment' and put pen to paper on the distribution and separation of government powers in the Constitution, they first described the authority entrusted to Congress on behalf of the American people.”

Cole has seen the inner workings of our government from many vantage points — as a legislator, as a statewide elected official, as director of my own Oklahoma-based staff during my years in Congress, and now as a senior member of Congress. His accumulated wisdom makes Cole a perfect leader in the effort to have Congress live up to its constitutionally authorized roles and responsibilities. As a staunch Republican, he deserves particular credit for being willing to lead on this important constitutional question regardless of which political party occupies the White House. When Cole was on my staff, he was always the voice of principle and conscience and he remains so today.

Americans across parties and ideologies deserve to have their representatives again have a voice in important matters of national security. The Oklahoma congressional delegation and members of both parties should follow the lead of Tom Cole and other members of the Rules Committee by joining this growing movement and supporting efforts to restore the proper constitutional role of Congress.

Mickey Edwards was a Republican member of Congress from Oklahoma for 16 years; he later taught at Harvard and is now a professor at Princeton.