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By Jay Cost

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Congress Asserts Itself

One of the most interesting features of the new Obama administration, I think, is how assertive Congress has been. While Obama is, of course, the public face of the Democratic Party, and seen to be in charge of the government - it is undeniable that Congress has taken on a central role in running the country.

We saw our first glimpse of congressional power in the Obama years when the President allowed congressional Democrats to write the stimulus bill.

Today, two stories come out that show Congress plans to put its stamp on the Obama budget, too. First from the Washington Post about uneasy backbenchers:

Democratic leaders in Congress did not expect much Republican support as they pressed President Obama's ambitious legislative agenda. But the pushback they are receiving from some of their own has come as an unwelcome surprise.

As the Senate inches closer to approving a $410 billion spending bill, the internal revolt has served as a warning to party leaders pursuing Obama's far-reaching plans for health-care, energy and education reform.

Those goals, spelled out in Obama's 2010 budget blueprint, continue to enjoy broad Democratic support. But as the ideas develop into detailed legislation, they will transform from abstract objectives into a tangle of difficult trade-offs.

The next comes from the New York Times on the authority committee chairs intend to exert on the Obama budget:

What the Democratic barons of Congress liked best about President Obama's audacious budget was his invitation to fill in the details. They have started by erasing some of his.

The apparent first casualty is a big one: a proposal to limit tax deductions for the wealthiest 1.2 percent of taxpayers. Mr. Obama says the plan would produce $318 billion over the next decade as a down payment for overhauling health care.

But the chairmen of the House and Senate tax-writing committees, Senator Max Baucus of Montana and Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York, have objected to the proposal, citing a potential drop in tax-deductible gifts to charities. [snip]

Mr. Obama is taking a gamble in outsourcing the drafting of his agenda's details to these five veteran lawmakers and others in Congress, each with his own political and parochial calculations.

It's easy to forget when there is a presidential election followed by a new President, but Congress is Article One of the Constitution, and (to borrow a phrase) it is the "keystone of the Washington establishment." We look to the President for leadership, but we should never forget the vast powers that the Constitution has granted to the Congress.

The problem with Congress is that it is not actually a national body. Instead, it is the meeting place of representatives from the various, diverse locales that make up the nation. There is nobody in Congress who is actually responsible to the nation as a whole. This means that Congress cannot necessarily be counted upon to craft truly public policy. A given piece of legislation might benefit the 435 districts and the 50 states, but it's a fallacy of composition to suppose that it benefits the nation as a whole. That's how we account for all of this earmarking, which is quintessential congressional particularlism: legislating for the benefit for 435 districts and 50 states, but at the expense of the nation at large.

Additionally, Congress is an institution that prizes the rights of individual legislators - that's not just because of the filibuster, but also committee chairmen and now even subcommittee chairmen. There are a lot of critical legislators who have to sign off on a bill for it to become law. With so many "vetoes" in the body, there emerges another problem: the inclination for Congress to do nothing, to let problems persist. This is often an easier alternative than inducing a powerful committee chair to alter his position.

Ultimately, it is the job of the modern President to guide Congress toward a coherent outcome that benefits the whole country. The Presidency is the only elected office for which all of us vote - and so the President is the one who is responsible for the national interest. It's his job to see to it that Congress does not devolve into particularism, or gets mired in gridlock - but instead works for the public good. This is an exceedingly difficult task. After all, the Presidency is outlined in Article II. The power of the President has grown over the years, but that is because of growth in his informal powers, not the powers granted to him by the Constitution. Beyond vetoes, there is not a heck of a lot the Constitution empowers him to do. Everything beyond that requires the adroit use of the presidential mystique.

So, at the end of the day, the President's success in managing Congress comes down to political acumen. We'll soon see whether President Obama has it. Having the Congress be of the same party as the President helps - but as I have noted time and again on this page, and as these articles should make clear, there are limits to the bonds of partisanship. The parties are a modestly centripetal force in what is an essentially centrifugal system - and it is simply not enough to say that because the President and the congressional majority are Democrats, the President will get his way. Just ask Jimmy Carter.

-Jay Cost