Which of the three branches of government was intended to be the most powerful? You’ve got three choices: The presidency, the court or Congress. I’ll give you a hint. If you look at the Constitution, the first article or section names the branch that had its powers listed first. Give up? The answer is Congress. It is likely Congress will work (or be forced) to regain that lost power during the next few years.
The founders of this nation intended Congress to have the greatest amount of power. The reason goes back to the government under the first U.S. Constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Because Americans were so distrustful of both executive and judicial power under the British Empire, the Articles were created without either an executive or judicial branch.
It took Shays’ Rebellion in 1786-87 to rouse national leaders out of their fears. Shays was a revolutionary patriot who struggled to maintain ownership of his property in western Massachusetts, due in great part to high state taxes. Ironically, it was the government in Boston, the epicenter of the revolution, that ignored the pleas and petitions of their own constituents that created the conditions for the rebellion.
Shays faced either the loss of his property or debtors’ prison. Angry and frustrated, he gathered other war veterans to rise up and close the state courts and to overthrow the state government. The Massachusetts government was able to put the rebellion down, just barely.
This event showed Congress and the national leaders they were helpless under the Articles of Confederation to keep this from happening again. A constitutional convention was called to meet in the summer of 1787 to revise the Articles. Instead, a new constitution was created, the one we live under today.
Congress remained as the most powerful branch until the coming of our first populist president, Andrew Jackson. He was elected twice, in 1828 and 1832, on a wave of populist anger over the establishment elites who had ruled the nation from its beginnings. That was when presidential power began to grow at the expense of Congress and has expanded since then in fits and starts.
Presidential power grew under Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, again under Teddy Roosevelt during his battles with the industrialists, under Woodrow Wilson during World War I and under Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II.
Since World War II, Congress has gradually relinquished its powers to the executive branch. It is Congress that is given the power to declare war, but neither the Korean nor the Vietnam conflicts, or a host of other conflicts, saw any Congressional declaration. It was Congress, though, that forced the end of the Vietnam War by cutting off the funding. It was also Congress that forced Richard Nixon out of office to avoid being impeached and removed from the presidency.
On numerous occasions, President Donald Trump has shifted responsibility to Congress to figure out: decertification of the Iran deal, cutting of funding for the health care system, and ending the DACA program. Most recently, he has allocated the task of funding the rebuilding of the U.S. infrastructure. All of these have been dumped in the lap of Congress. While Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and the Democrats have complained about Trump’s weak leadership, the actual responsibility for these national issues belongs to Congress.
Perhaps, under our second populist president, we will see a reversal of the trend started by Andrew Jackson between 1829 and 1833. Congress needs to step up and assume the role the founders of our nation intended for it. Congress has exercised several powers during Trump’s first year in office. They passed a resolution forbidding the president to end sanctions against Russia and they have set up several investigations of Russian involvement into the 2016 presidential election.
Life and politics seem to move in cycles. A trend toward increasing presidential power may be ending its cycle in our time. President Trump may be forcing Congress to take back its constitutional responsibility as the most powerful branch. There is a certain irony in Trump’s decisions to dump the nation’s problems back in its lap. Perhaps making America great again could result in a vital and necessary return to our constitutional roots?
Richard Elfers is a professor at Green River College.