American StudiesPolitical studies

Financial and General Functions of US Congress

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Congress has authority over financial and budgetary policy through the enumerated power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.

Financial Functions of US Congress.

The Constitution establishes the financial supremacy of Congress by specifying that no money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in consequence of appropriation made by law. The Constitution also provides that all Bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives. The usage adds to it that the appropriation Bills are also initiated there. The Senate possesses co-equal powers with the House of Representatives in accepting or rejecting Financial Bills, but in practice it  functions as a Court of Appeals in financial legislation often mending defects of such measures sent over from the House.

The budgetary powers of Congress are, indeed, great as both Congress and the President shape national policy-making. It is a system of separated institutions sharing powers. How Congress shares powers with the President is succinctly explained by David E. Bell, President Kennedy’s first Director of the Bureau of the Budget. The Budget, he said,

is ………….a major means for unifying and setting forth an overall executive programme.

It reflects (the President’s) judgment of the relative priority of different federal activities. Thus, the, President’s budget necessarily reflects his policy judgments and the Congress in acting on the President’s budget necessarily reviews these policy judgments as to the relative importance of alternative uses of national resources.

The essential idea of the budget process is to permit a systematic consideration of our Government’s programme requirements in the light of available resources; to identify marginal choices and the judgment factors that bear on them; to balance competing requirements against each other; and finally, to enable the President to decide upon priorities and present them to the Congress in the form of a coherent work programme and financial plan.

General Appraisal of Congress:-

The Founding Fathers, who drafted the Constitution of 1787, had great hopes for Congress. Congress was conceived as the dominant and most powerful of all three branches of government. It was given a place of precedence and it is the first and the longest Article of the Constitution longer than all other original Articles combined.

The Constitution gives to Congress control of the laws of the nation, the finances of the nation, the strength of the armed forces of the country, By implication it possesses unlimited investigatory powers. It has the right to impeach the President, the Vice-President and other officers of the United States, exercises complete supervisory powers over administrative agencies and has-the choice to select the President and Vice-President if no candidate receives an electoral majority.

In brief, because of its supervisory and appropriation power, Congress has stronger ultimate administrative powers than the Presidency, and because of its impeachment powers, including the impeachment of the judges themselves, it is a higher Court of justice than any other, including the Supreme Court, in the land.

The powers of Congress, except for certain exceptions, are clearly constitutional and detailed carefully to cover eighteen different phases of national life and emerging therefrom are the Implied powers and Resultant powers. Members of Congress are the only officials who are exempt from arrest while attending sessions, except for treason, felony or breach of peace and from libel law.

Its working and achievements disclose that Congress stands out as one of the successful Legislatures of the democratic world. It has endured for more than two hundred years and has never failed to serve the country loyally.

Nevertheless, Congress has from the beginning not fulfilled the expectations of the framers of the Constitution. It has suffered declining prestige, weakened influence, and a more or less chronic inability to get its work done, as the Presidency has in general grown and as the Supreme Court has on the whole held its own.

Not a Really National Representative Body:-

Primary among the reasons of its declining prestige and authority is the fact that Congress is not, in very real sense, a national representative body. It is an assemblage of State delegations. Its historic development, unlike the Presidency, has been along generally regional lines, its major pre-occupation has been the resolution, usually by compromise, of conflicting regional interests; its ordinary approach to national legislation has been through the avenue of the effect of such legislation, not on the welfare or the opinion of the nation as a whole, but on the interests and the reaction of the area from which the Senators and Representatives come and to which they must return.

Congress, is, as Professor Laski pointed out, the legislature of a continent and a member of Congress is expected to think in terms of sectional interests. He must think about the effect of a measure upon the particular area for which he sits rather than its effects on the country as a whole. This regional attitude of Congress has given it a position of backwardness, but to the advantage of Presidency which Americans regard as the pivot of national solidarity.

At the position of Congress and its members is the working of the locality rule. The Constitution demands that the Senators and Representatives shall be residents of the States they represent and convention insists that Representatives shall, in addition, be residents of the congressional district that they wish to represent.

A member of the House of Representatives is constantly aware that every two years he will be judged by -his constituents and this awareness makes him far more responsive to his judgment of what will please them. The obvious result is that every Congressman keeps his ear to the ground and sacrifices national for local and sectional interests. Locality rule accounts in part of the comparative local-mindedness of the American Congress.

A member of Parliament in Britain cannot afford to disregard the party whip and go against the behest of the party even if the decision of the party may be antagonistic to the wishes of his constituents. In America, neither the Senator nor the Representative can afford to obey the party call against the wish of the State or a district he represents.

He knows that if he is defeated it will mean the end of his Congressional career. The Pres:dent or the party can do nothing for him, cannot procure for him a seat outside his own bailiwick, can only solace him with a job and cannot always do that. The result ts that the whims of the local party boss, if his fate depends upon his judgment, or that of an important section of his home-folks are more near and dearer to him than the national leaders of his party.

Voters, too, fee! that if they elect a man he should be the local champion. All these factors combined together do not make Congress really a national representative body and, consequently, its authority and prestige are grievously impaired.

Separation between Executive and Legislature:-

The Presidential system of government envisages a distinct mechanism of government, Parliament, in Britain, is only formally a legislative body. Its real business is to endorse the decisions of the Cabinet and make them effective, Parliament may bring about minor amendments here and there in the measures before it, but fundamentally legislation is shaped in the Whitehall and not in Westminster. With Congress, it is just the reverse.

Legislation is the main business of both the Chambers in the United States. The Senate and the House do not act under the instructions of the President. They, no doubt, co-operate with him, particularly during times of national emergencies but Congress is a co-ordinate branch of government with the Executive.

To put it still more explicitly, the Executive and the Legislature are co-equal partners in working the govern: mental machinery. There is, however, no cohesiveness and the party ties which bind the Executive and Legislative departments of government are too flimsy for an integrated policy as obtainable in Britain and other countries with parliamentary system of government.

To put if in the words of Laski, the party ties which bind the two wings of government never bind them into a unity. The interests of Congress are separable from those of the President.

From the very beginning of the establishment of the Union, Congress has always emphasized its independent existence and its independent will, except only during war, or an emergency like that of March 1933, where there had been unity of purpose and unity of will.

This is for two reasons. First, the realization of the fact that administration does not depend for its existence on Congress if it acts on its own way; and, secondly, every individual Congressman endeavors to assert himself and his rights that Congress cannot be overshadowed by the President.

To put alterations and modifications to the measures of the President is to draw attention to itself that he is not unqualified master of the nation. Sometimes the very political survival of the Congressman, who is, after all, subject to renomination and re-election on the local level, demands that he break on one or more issues with the President of his own party.

The provisions of the Constitution with respect to foreign policy are an invitation to struggle between the President and Congress, in the opinion of Professor Edward S. Corwin. The invitation lies in the intricate system of checks and balances by which the framers of the Constitution sought to ensure that neither the President nor Congress would totally dominate the other.

Congress has not always accepted the Constitution’s invitation to struggle with the President over foreign policy. There had been periods when Congress was content to leave the matter to the President—because of the strong personality of a particular President, because of Congressional indifference, or, most importantly, because Congress generally agreed with what the President was doing.

The most recent such period of relative Executive-Congress peace lasted approximately 20 years, from World War IT till about the middle of 1960’s. This broad consensus between Congress and a succession of Presidents, in American public opinion generally was cracked by President Lyndon Johnson’s intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965 and then shattered by the deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam beginning the same year.

Since that watershed Congress has become increasingly assertive of its constitutional rights and prerogatives. Through a variety of legislative devices, it has sought and secured a much greater measure of detailed control over Executive branch agencies. The technique of consensus which Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could hammer out and enlist the aid of key congressional leaders and Committee Chairmen has become a casualty of 1970s.

Neo-Congressional government, observes Alexander Haig, would not be harmful if we had a parliamentary system. But our Congress is neither temperamentally nor structurally adapted to discharge executive branch responsibilities, nor is its constitution mandated to do so. He, therefore, concludes that the eighteenth century concept of balance is as essential to our constitution as is its emphasis on checks. The machinery of government becomes harmonious not in paralysis but in balanced action.

Short-sighted Policy of Congress:-

The net result is incoherence and irresponsibility. The Executive has no place in Congress to coordinate its activities and establish a hyphen between the Executive and Legislative departments of government. Legislation is every Congressman’s concern, but it is no one’s child. To impress upon his constituents his worth as a legislator and in order to cater to the local sentiments and to justify the trust reposed in him by his electors, every Congressman has a mania to rush in all kinds of measures.

Congress is, accordingly, charged of wilful parochialism and neglect of national needs. It has, consequently, seldom succeeded in formulating and enacting long range and lasting policies unless they were imposed upon it by a strong President.

Polsby maintains that even the efficient minority of Congressmen, who stand eminent in the legislative sphere, determine the consequences of their behavior from the point of their careers. The questions he must continually pose to himself are. How will my behavior today affect my standing in the House tomorrow, the next day, and in years to come? How may I act so to enhance my esteem in the eyes of my colleagues ? How may I lay up the treasures of my obligation and friendship against my day of need? Or, if he is oriented to public policy. How may I enhance the future chances of policies I favor.

Such a state of mind has made Congress. The butt of jokes among all the people, the subject of despair among the enlightened and the instrument of hope among the ruthless. It has, therefore, been correctly observed. If the law is regarded as properly it should be as a codification of the moral judgment of the community as a whole, which in this case is the nation, then, Congress has been strangely and unbelievably obtruse in determining that judgment.

The Congress, thus, speaks in a confusion of tongues and the long decline of Congress has contributed greatly to the rise of Presidency. It cannot operate successfully without leadership, which none but the President can offer, When Congress finally gave up its primary responsibility for preparing the national Budget in 1921, it had no choice but to call on the President to come to its rescue. By abdicating this ancient and primary function, exercised the most shortsighted policy since it gave a tremendous boost to the power of the President, not only to control his administration, but to influence the legislative process too.

Inefficient Working of Congress:-

Even a cursory observer of the working of Congress would regret the amount of legislative. time wasted on relatively minor issues, and the haste, especially in the House in which matter of great importance are dealt with. The rules filibuster and the two-thirds votes required for ratifying treaties in the Senate are a great hindrance in the way of the majority and Congress carrying out its purpose.

The Rules of Procedure followed in both the Houses encourage minorities to obstruct its business by making frequent points of order and time consuming motions, introducing irrelevant business, and repeatedly demanding quorum calls.

The Congressman is not only a legislator, but he is also expected to serve his constituents as an errand-boy in varied fields divorced from legislation. An active Congressman once said, Nevertheless at least half of my time is taken up with matters that has nothing to do with my legislative duties.

Answering letters from my constituents, trotting around to the Departments doing their errands, trying to represent them in one way or another as a broker, a factor, an attorney, an agent, an emissary; and whatever you: will takes up about half the time of the average. Congressman And I don’t have to do it if don’t want to. All I have to do is to neglect it; then I get licked at the next election.

Such kind of work seriously interferes with Congressman’s real usefulness as a national law-maker. The theory of representation as prevailing in the United States demands that the representative gives his attention, first to his constituents and secondly, to national affairs.

Local sentiment and pressure are, thus, intensified. Though neither residence in the district nor the elements of short term of office are present in the Senate, the attitude fostered by the relationship of constituents to their representative, write Professors Swarthout and Bartley, is transferred over to the Senator in similar, though diminished, fashion.

The criticism of many members of Congress themselves, together with those of other officers of government and outside commentators, about the adequacy of Congress to, meet the challenges of the twentieth century, are compiled on the Hearings of the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress which were held fr om March to June 1945, and which culminated in an enactment of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946.

The Director of the Bureau of the Budget, Harold E. Smith, in his testimony urged the Joint Committee to consider broadly what the role of Congress should be in the government of the United States. He developed his point as follows, we are familiar with the observation that this is a different sort of world from that which existed when the Constitutional Convention devised the framework of our government.

Yet we still lack a penetrating and practical restatement of the role of representative assemblies in the light of the changed problems with which they deal and the altered conditions under which they operate. We are up against the fact that legislative bodies have not changed very much but the kinds of problems with which they must cope have changed radically.

Your own talents and the keenest minds you can command could very well be devoted to rethinking the functions of the Congress under present conditions. A sound formulation of the role of the representative body is basic to all the work cf your committee. Only on such a basis can one develop standards by which to judge and develop proposals for changes in organization, procedure, staffing and other matters.

Influence of Lobby:-

A Congressman is further bedeviled by the presence in the national capital of numerous individuals who press him at every turn to support or reject given legislation. There is no open bribery or graft, but the methods employed by the lobbyist are frequently so subtle that the unsuspecting legislator is under lobby influence before he is quite aware of what has happened.

The lobbyists are the representatives of the special groups economically or otherwise interested in the legislation before Congress. They are called lobbyists because they buttonhole individual members of Congress in the lobbies and elsewhere too. The members succumb to the special interest gr-ups.

The existence of lobbies is a serious problem to Congress, because they place on the legislator a burden from which he cannot always disassociate himself. The pleadings and threats of special interest groups are constantly in his ears. Even many of the church groups of the nation now maintain paid lobbyists in the nation’s capital.

Lobbying, no doubt, ts good and it frequently performs necessary services, but it has outgrown its evil associations and more sordid ways with shocking results on the reputation and integrity of Congress as a national legislative body.

The Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act is an important section of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, which aimed to remedy some of the glaring defects in the lobby. The Lobbying Act requires persons, corporations, and organized groups of all kinds seeking to influence the passage or defeat of legislation by Congress to register, list contributions, and file quarterly statements of expenditures with the Clerk of the House of Representatives. But it is no remedy and does not help to elevate the stature of Congress.

Rigours of the Committee System:-

The Committee System is also subjected to severe criticism and it centers to a considerable degree on the methods used in Committees of Investigation. The seniority rule in choosing Committee Chairmen, sometimes almost dictatorial power of Committees Chairmen, and broad authority of the Committees to pigeonhole legislation are matters which are disturbing and they have since long troubled some students of Congress.

Yet curtailing these powers, without generally overhauling the entire congressional machine and drastically altering philosophy of the members would result in an impossible volume of work for Congress. As regards purposes of Congressional investigations, other reasons aside, investigations are often motivated by the desire of a political party to advance its own interests or to embarrass its adversary.

In 1920 and 1930, the Democratic Party did its best to discredit the Republican Party through investigations into the scandals of Harding Administration and the evils of bankers and businessmen. The Republican Party took its revenge in 1947-48 and 1953-54 to expose the shortcomings of Roosevelt and Truman administrations.

Thus instead of giving fair, impartial information to Congress and to the public for constructive use, an investigating committee usually starts out to prove something and hunts the evidence which will support this proof and this vicious circle continues without any qualms of conscience. The public can hardly expect Congress to function with wisdom under the circumstances.

Judicial Review:-

The process of judicial review also depresses the enthusiasm of the legislators. While the last word rests with the Supreme Court, the legislators while initiating any legislative measure have not only to think that what their constituents want, or will stand, but also whether what Congress does decide will be acceptable to the Supreme Court in case its validity is challenged. No one can predict what the Supreme Court will do, but the apprehension is there, When all legislation, observes Professor Brogan, has to run this kind of gauntlet, the results are apt to depress the legislator and his supporters, to blunt the edge of zeal and hope to turn the minds of both parties to more practicable and tangible achievements, favors and jobs.

Unification of Socioeconomic Interests:-

In the context of the present state of affairs in the country there has been the growing unification of the nation’s economic and social interests. The sectional economic issues are fast disappearing and all sections of the people now stand together for their common interests.

The rejection of Jimmy Carter for the second Presidential term and even his own South repudiating him, except his own State of Georgia and there, too, his own huge margin of 1976 with down by almost 20 per cent, clearly indicates that national politics have now few sectional aspects rand it is not easy to split the country geographically on economic issues. The nation accepted Reagan’s economic policy and even the Democratic” Congressmen had supported some aspects of that policy.

Socially, too the Midwest farmer, the Far west rancher and the Easter plant manager are becoming unified in their tastes and values; their children no longer go solely to their own sectional colleges and universities; their travel and vacations are no longer within sectional limits. But there is no change in the attitude of Senators and the Representatives. The senior Senator from Tennessee is no more concerned with or closer to the residents of Oregon that he was two or three generations ago. In the falls of Congress sectional values, sectional attitude and sectional roots remain.

The result is that the people with their new national standards do not look favorably towards Congress. They are, indeed, unwilling to place great faith in a legislature which, while still protecting what local interests remain, frequently by procrastination, indecision or opportunistic compromise endangers the nation’s interests.They look to the President as the embodiment of national unity and national solidarity. This really is dangerous to the prestige of Congress and grave cause of its weakness.

(Read more)  The American Political Tradition

SAKHRI Mohamed

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