What You Missed: A Bipartisan Hearing and Growing Consensus on Restoring Checks and Balances

Given Super Tuesday news and the appropriate focus on the coronavirus, it’s understandable that you likely missed an important and all-too-rare development on Capitol Hill this week: a truly bipartisan hearing to explore restoring the Constitutional role of Congress on matters of national security.

The House Rules Committee, typically one of the most partisan committees on the Hill, held a hearing on March 3 on “Article I: Constitutional Perspectives on the Responsibility and Authority of the Legislative Branch,” featuring a who’s who of Constitutional scholars and academics as witnesses (see video recap of the hearing here and an overview of witnesses and their statements here).

The hearing was the latest reminder that our current system of checks and balances is broken and that Presidents of both parties have seized too much power to act unilaterally on national security issues at the expense of the people’s representatives. There’s an understandable sense of skepticism from some observers that our political system is ready to rebalance the congressional/presidential power dynamic.  But there is now real bipartisan momentum — from in and outside Congress — behind reform, and the hearing offered real promise that Congress is finally ready to do something about it in a meaningful and bipartisan manner. Here are a few key takeaways from the hearing and its larger implications:

  • Strong bipartisan leadership. As Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) said at the start of the hearing, “We are doing this in hopes of finding concrete, bipartisan solutions to better ensure Congress is playing the role our nation’s Founders envisioned … this really is about whether we remain the institution that our nation’s founders created, to be the voice of the people.” Similarly, Rules Ranking Member Tom Cole (R-OK) opened by saying, “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.”

Chairman McGovern and Ranking Member Cole are clearly committed to the subject. Beyond their engagement and leadership in spearheading the Rules Committee hearing, check out their recent joint C-SPAN “Newsmakers” interview, during which both Chairman McGovern and Ranking Member Cole explained in detail why their bipartisan efforts are meaningful and necessary (watch here).

  • Sharing the gavel between parties – a meaningful symbolic moment. This was a remarkably substantive and bipartisan hearing that featured several powerful moments. As Bloomberg News congressional correspondent Billy House noted, “Rare for it to happen, but during the hearing now on congressional erosion of checks and balances … Democratic Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern had to step out for a bit — and gave the gavel over to the top Republican, Tom Cole . . . underscoring that the effort at considering potential solutions in response to decades of perceived presidential overreach needs to reflect bipartisan institutional concerns” (see the video of the gavel exchange here).
  • Part of a growing and bipartisan consensus for structural reforms to rebalance powers. Beyond the symbolism and key leadership of Reps. McGovern and Cole, Committee Members and expert witnesses alike acknowledged that the current system of checks and balances is broken and that Congress has been all-too-willing to provide Presidents too much power to act unilaterally, cutting out the people’s representatives on critical national security issues. This hearing laid the groundwork for meaningful investigation and future reform, rebalancing the branches in favor of Congress, the most representative branch, where the Founders intended it. The hearing featured thoughtful, extensive engagement from Members of both parties. The contours of a shared consensus to continue to work on real reforms and solutions emerged. The hearing promises to be the start of a new effort to actually do something about the erosion of checks and balances.

The Rules Committee hearing is just the latest example of the bipartisan and cross-ideological momentum behind restoring the role of Congress on national security matters. Bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate recently passed War Powers Resolutions rejecting further military action against Iran without prior Congressional approval. During the 116th Congress, bipartisan, bicameral majorities passed resolutions to end the war in Yemen, end the border emergency, and block arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In the Senate, a bill reforming the National Emergencies Act by adding a sunset provision passed out of committee by a bipartisan 12-2 margin and has 18 Republican cosponsors. In the House, bipartisan majorities voted for amendments on the National Defense Authorization Act that would have reasserted congressional war powers and required greater oversight of arms sales.

  • Bipartisan momentum growing off Capitol Hill. The bipartisan momentum on display in the Rules Committee echoes the momentum and growing consensus from outside observers. In addition to the expert testimony of the hearing witnesses, twenty leading organizations from across the political spectrum, including Protect Democracy, recently launched an effort to restore checks and balances on national security powers. In a statement of principles, the organizations pledge to work towards “structural reforms that restore the balance of national security powers between the President and Congress,” noting that, “All Americans have a stake in the decisions to go to war, bypass ordinary laws through emergency declarations, or sell weapons to foreign regimes.”

The remarkable bipartisanship and growing consensus on display during the Rules Committee hearing and beyond offers optimism that Congress is ready to build on these conversations and consensus and explore meaningful structural reforms to address the abdication of its proper Constitutional role.

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