Will Congress be able to hold President Trump in check?

nigel-bowlesDonald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States in January, but will he actually be able to carry out his agenda? Nigel Bowles writes that he will largely be able to. In the areas of trade, security, taxation and judicial appointments Congress will struggle to constrain him under current law and politics. Changing immigration law and reforming the Affordable Care Act are likely to prove more challenging. Nonetheless, during the first year of the Trump presidency American politics is likely to give the appearance of being what it only rarely is: a presidential system. For better or for worse, President Trump really will be in charge.

The United States constitution is Madisonian in design and spirit. Separation of powers and federalism in combination are the structure against which, through which, and by which American politics plays out. Much else matters: party, ideology, public opinion, crises external and internal, leadership’s quality of imagination and purpose, especially. But the system’s architecture is Madisonian. It is not (not usually, at least) a presidential system. Instead, federal government comprises separate but coordinate institutions sharing in authority and in power. Article I of the US Constitution places Congress first in this separated Madisonian order. The symbolism of first place reflects Congress’s abundant richness in authority.

Yet Congress’s authority is limited by recurrent and systematic collective action problems. Those problems spring from Congress’s bicameralism, from its four-party organisation across the two chambers, and from its committee structure. They arise, too from electoral bases of legitimacy: from Senators’ identifications with state interests and cultures, from Representatives’ dependence upon their districts’ majority party voters and party activists for biennial re-election. The collective action problems are exacerbated in the early twenty-first century by ideologically distinct, and typically hostile, Congressional parties; and they are complicated by clashing personal ambitions of legislators. These constraints upon Congress’s authority in turn limit its political effectiveness and, accordingly, its collective capacity to bring about intended effects – in other words, its political power.

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