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Is Congress Ready to Reassert its Independent Role?

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I have just finished watching the Sunday talk shows. David Gregory had his exclusive interview with Vice President Biden; much of the rest of the talk was about health care reform and its chances of passing in the Senate.

Too much of the talk centered on the politics of the Obama administration. What could the GOP do to dent his armor? Are the "new" Republicans going to sit out the 2012 election? Chris Matthews even speculated about whether Biden would be dropped from the ticket in favor of Secretary of State Clinton in 2012; of course, Gregory had also asked Biden if he still wanted to be President.

All in all -- and this from a Sunday morning talk show junkie -- a pretty poor excuse for analysis of what's going on in Washington.

When I sit down to write these comments, I try to ask one of two questions. Either: Is there something happening in the world on which I feel compelled to give my opinion -- the outrage question. Or: Do I have some perspective on what's happening -- because I am a political scientist and hope to bring a different analytical framework to examining a situation than do journalists, or because I write from outside the Beltway and thus view Washington with a more skeptical eye -- that might make my take on a situation of interest to others.

Today I write as a political scientist.

One of the great untold stories of the Bush administration was the failure of the Congress to exercise its legitimate power. Congress is a co-equal branch of the government. No where is it written than Congressmen and Senators who are members of a President's party should passively roll over and follow his every lead.

Yet that is exactly what the Republicans in Congress did during the Bush administration. On policy matters, they voted in lockstep for his proposals -- and the Democrats opposed them in equal lockstep. The only major exception to that observation deals with immigration policy.

Worse, the Republican Congress was totally derelict in its oversight responsibilities -- not monitoring spending in Iraq with care; not effectively examining the work of FEMA after Katrina; not calling into question the use of torture as a means of interrogation or the opening of a prison at Guantanamo; not looking at the brewing scandal of the firing of U.S. Attorneys, etc.

Worse still, the Republican Congress stood silently by as President Bush threatened the essence of the separation of powers by issuing signing statements as he approved legislation, saying essentially that he would follow that legislation when he felt those actions right and not when he did not.

The question that could have been asked this week on the Sunday talk shows is whether pockets of Democratic opposition to President Obama's proposals represent the first steps in the Congress's reassertion of its constitutional status as an equal partner in the policy making process.

On important questions -- Speaker Pelosi on release of torture photos, many on the continuing funding of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Blue Dog Democrats in the House and moderate senators like Mary Landieru of Louisiana on the direction of health care reform and how it will be financed, Minnesota's Colin Peterson challenging not only the administration but also fellow Democrat Henry Waxman on aspects of climate change legislation, fiscal moderates generally on annual appropriations and the impact on the federal debt -- Democrats in Congress, in some cases liberals and in some cases moderates, are playing leading roles in voicing concern and forcing the White House to take notice.

Political pundits have taken these stands by dissatisfied Democrats as evidence of Democrats feuding among themselves. And perhaps that is accurate. One test of President Obama's power -- again in a sense that political scientists following Richard Neustadt have been talking about for decades -- is his ability to persuade those with independent bases of power to go along with what he wants, because of his public prestige and enhanced repudiation for acting more like a seasoned veteran than an inexperienced neophyte.

But another way to view recent developments is a reestablishment of the Congress as an appropriate check on the President, exercising the separate powers that our founders so wisely gave to the legislature as a means to control a dominating executive.

My liberal friends might not like that, and my conservative friends might be surprised that I do. But I think that our democracy is best served -- and in fact, this President is best served -- when we legislate with care, when we build substantial coalitions to support fundamental policy change, and when the people's branch acts as a check -- not in a partisan sense but in an institutional sense -- on the executive.

L. Sandy Maisel is director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College, Waterville, Maine.