Americans seem starkly split today on a wide range of issues. That’s in large measure because the federal government has grown so much in size, scope, cost, and intrusiveness that we battle fiercely over who will exercise that power. Conservatives spent eight years deploring the Obama administration’s use and abuse of executive power through executive orders, regulations, and even guidance letters from the depths of the bureaucracy. Now liberals are aghast at those awesome powers falling into the hands of the Trump administration.
That makes 2017 a perfect time for thoughtful Republicans and Democrats to come together on measures to restore constitutional balance and rein in executive power. The latest edition of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers, released this week, provides a roadmap that addresses these issues and more.
For example, many policymakers may worry about the danger that President Trump could embroil the U.S. in another war. They could start by reaffirming the constitutional requirement that Congress decides when Americans go to war. They should also debate a new authorization for military force in the Middle East—one that is not a blanket grant of power — and a new War Powers Act with real teeth.
Democrats and Republicans can surely agree that important decisions ought to be made by the people’s branch, not by any president alone.
Domestically, Congress should remind the executive branch of the very first words of the Constitution: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” Congress must stop writing grand, vague laws and leaving all the rulemaking to regulatory agencies. Congress has just rediscovered the Congressional Review Act, under which it can repeal regulations issued by agencies. Now it should consider legislation such as the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, which would require Congress to hold an up-or-down vote on all major regulations before final issuance.
Devolving power from Washington to states and local communities can also help to ease conflicts ranging from gun rights and school locker rooms to environmental protection. While Education Secretary Betsy DeVos may have stated the problem awkwardly, it’s true that the people of Manhattan and Montana have different attitudes and experiences regarding guns. Maybe they should be able to set different rules. In 2016 the Department of Justice and the Department of Education issued “guidance” to the 13,500 school districts across the United States on how they should manage access to locker rooms and bathrooms in 99,000 public schools. Instead of a rule issued by faceless bureaucrats in Washington, why not let the people of the 50 states and thousands of communities talk through that issue and come to their own evolving answers?
The issue that may have decided the 2016 election is the widespread sense that our economy is not working as well as it should. Even before the recession, Americans feared that their children might not live as well as they did. This slow growth matters most to those who are not yet well off.
Economic woes can generate misguided policy proposals, from repeated “stimulus” programs that add to the national debt to closing off trade and investment that create jobs. Before blocking imports and creating a backlash that will also block American exports, Congress should take a hard look at the ways current U.S. law may be limiting investment and job creation. As a first order of business, the new Congress should order a comprehensive audit of the regulatory, tax, and policy environments to identify redundancies, inefficiencies, and systemic problems that artificially raise the cost of doing business in the United States.
There ought to be bipartisan agreement on undoing what we might call “regressive regulation”—regulatory barriers to entry and competition that work to redistribute income and wealth upward. Such policies at the state and local level include restrictive zoning that raises the price of housing and occupational licensing laws that restrict entry into professions ranging from teeth-cleaning to cab-driving. At the federal level Congress should take a hard look at the over-extension and abuse of copyright and patent law, and at trade and immigration restrictions that raise costs for consumers and businesses.
Another area where solutions would help is in the healthcare reform debate, which has gone on for years. For 70 years, government has been assuming greater control over consumers’ health care dollars, either by giving workers’ earnings to employers or by spending that money itself. Government decides what kind of health insurance we get, where we get it, and how doctors will practice medicine—and more patients end up falling through the cracks. The Affordable Care Act didn’t do anything to take us off that path. We need to make healthcare higher quality, more affordable, and more secure by putting patients in charge of their health care dollars and decisions.
Sometimes the best thing Congress can do on an issue is nothing. But the 80 chapters and hundreds of recommendations – ranging from corporate taxation reform to surveillance restrictions to a more restrained foreign policy—in the Cato Handbook demonstrate that a determined Congress could significantly improve American governance. And Democrats and Republicans can surely agree that important decisions ought to be made by the people’s branch, not by any president alone.
David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute.