The suicide of the House is complete

Saturday, September 7, 2019
By Paul Martin

By Larry Schweikart
September 7, 2019

The recent announcement by James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) that he would not seek re-election in 2020 sparked new worries among the GOP that retaking the House in 2020 might be nearly impossible. Although Sensenbrenner’s district should be “safe” (as should about half of the more than a dozen seats in districts where Republicans are retiring), it never helps to lose an incumbent.

That said, in 2020, the control of the House may be well near irrelevant.

Over time, the House has had one major constitutional duty: the budget. All spending and taxation bills must originate in the House. But in all likelihood, the decline of the House started in 1995, when the newly elected Republican Congress under Newt Gingrich caved in to media pressure to give Bill Clinton his bloated budget. Since then, no House has even attempted to control the deficits or the debt. For eight years under George W. Bush, the rationale was to fund the War on Terror. Then, under Barack Obama, the Democrat House had no intention of dealing with the deficits or the debt. For eight years, under both Democrats and Republicans, nothing was done to recapture the budget process. Continuing resolutions were the rule of the day.

Enter Nancy Pelosi, whose Congress openly and energetically vowed to do utterly nothing in the way of actual legislation, but instead to investigate and otherwise obstruct President Donald Trump. This marked the final transition of the House into irrelevance.

Meanwhile, Trump marched through his presidency like Sherman through Georgia, canceling bad trade deals, negotiating new ones, imposing tariffs, and most recently building the wall. Yes, quietly, while everyone was watching Robert Mueller testify, Trump’s reallocation of Department of Defense funds to build the wall was upheld, and wall construction has already started (and in some places been completed) in California and Arizona. Trump predicted that fully 500 miles of the Wall will be completed by 2020.

And the House had nothing whatsoever to do with it. It would be possible for a Democrat House to pass a budget that would not be anything close to what the Senate would pass — then fight it out in reconciliation — and see a Trump-unfriendly budget get vetoed. Even if the Republicans lose a few more seats in 2020, they won’t have a veto-proof majority. The House cannot override a Trump veto.

When it comes to another signature issue for Trump, judges, Mitch McConnell in the Senate has been a machine. Trump’s appointees are closing in on 30% of the federal bench total, and more wait in the wings. It is entirely possible that Trump will get at least one, and perhaps more, Supreme Court picks. What role does the House play in all this? None.

Trump has already canceled NAFTA. In its place, he has negotiated a new trade agreement that must be approved by both the House and the Senate — but if the House refuses to act, NAFTA is still dead. The House can only confirm and add to Trump’s power, not reduce it.

Two rules apply here. Rule 1: A muscle that is not used atrophies. The House’s constitutional muscle is budget-making. If it has voluntarily abdicated that role, who needs it? Rule 2: Nature abhors a vacuum. If the House doesn’t pass immigration bills (as Trump has begged it to), or address DACA (as Trump has begged it to), or write a budget that Trump can sign, then it has consigned itself to irrelevance.

I write this with some sadness. It certainly was not the Founders’ vision for the House to be the least relevant of the legislative process, and in the minds of many of the Founders, it was to be the most “democratic” and responsive to the people. Once the House ceded its most fundamental responsibilities, it was inevitable that those duties would be done by the Executive.

Therefore, it is entirely possible that some or many of the House retirees intuitively know that the House has become meaningless. They may well know that, although the process was long in developing, Nancy Pelosi has turned the House of Representatives into the American equivalent of the House of Lords.

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