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20 Minutes with Jasmine Farrier on 'Congressional ambivalence'

by UofL Today last modified Jun 28, 2010 03:36 PM

The United States Congress has a history of giving up power, then taking it back, according to Jasmine Farrier, an associate professor of political science at the University of Louisville.

20 Minutes with Jasmine Farrier on 'Congressional ambivalence'

Jasmine Farrier

This spring she published her second book on that topic, called "Congressional Ambivalence: The Political Burdens of Constitutional Authority" (University Press of Kentucky, 2010). Farrier talked to UofL Today recently about her book and her research.

When did you do begin working on this book and what inspired you to begin the process?

This book is a sibling to my first book 'Passing the Buck: Congress, the Budget, and Deficits' (also published with the University Press of Kentucky in 2004). 'Passing the Buck' asked why Congress had a mixed record of giving up and taking back power through the budget and deficit wars of the 1970s through the 1990s. 'Congressional Ambivalence' looks at the same issue with different policy areas that show a push and pull of institutional power in Congress over different partisan and policy moments: base closure commissions, international trade, and post-9/11 responses at home (Patriot Act) and abroad (Iraq war).

How did you research this book?

I am lucky: most of my research uses Congressional bills, committee hearings, floor debates, votes and executive statements — all of which are public documents. UofL is a federal government documents depository, so I had everything I needed right on campus. Even more conveniently, almost anything done in Congress beginning in 1995 was put on Congress's official website — a treasure trove of information for me. For all public legislative documents from the 1970s and 1980s, I used microfilm in Ekstrom Library and the Law Library at (UofL's) Brandeis (School of Law), as well as a database called Congressional Universe, available through the UofL library database page.

Is there an example you can share that illustrates what you call "the cycle of ambivalence."

The cycle of ambivalence is my term for Congress's pattern of giving up power, followed by regret, followed by more power release. The book's chapter on post-9/11 policy illustrates the cycle. In the Patriot Act and the Iraq War, Congress was pushed by the executive branch and many of its own members to set aside normal legislative processes in favor of granting the George W. Bush administration its favored policy.

However, just months after the policies were approved, many members of Congress began to question the rationale of the policy and how it was managed. In response to these criticisms, even members who voted for the original laws began to introduce policy to curb the power, or engaged in high-profile public criticism.

But when the time came to take back power, Congress demurred. In the Patriot Act, Congress set a timer to revisit the legislation five years later, in 2005. It opted to renew an even stronger version of the legislation. Even as the war became very unpopular, members of Congress did not use all the powers they could to change the course of the conflict. Congress approved all the war budgets submitted by the president, even when Democrats took back power after the 2006 election.

Why do you believe politicians are willing to give up their power only to relinquish and later publicly state their regrets?

Each member of Congress wears many hats and has dueling loyalties to his or her constituents, party and institution. Members are tugged in endless directions and often lack confidence that their branch can really understand certain policy decisions — such as war — as well as the executive branch. But the executive branch is also beholden to many partisan and other interests that prevent it from seeing the world objectively. The difference is that as partisan and narrow as any president may be in reality, they all use the rhetoric of speaking on behalf of "all Americans." Congress as an institution does not use that phrase as frequently and thus doesn't function or speak cohesively on policy in certain circumstances until after the fact.

Do you think this problem has worsened in years?

In my two books, I focus on delegation of power and regret by Congress largely in the 1980s through today, but there are also moments when Congress takes back power, as was the case in the 1970s. So the problem may appear worse, but I would not say Congress lies down all the time.

As the subtitle of the book says, members and parties sometimes see a political liability in exercising legislative power against the president, but these conflicts can sometimes be quite vivid and even counter-intuitive. Democrats in Congress flustered Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and even Barack Obama. Republicans gave Bill Clinton a line-item veto and thwarted George W. Bush's agenda to reform Social Security and Medicare. So Congress is very inconsistent with its view of its own power, which can confuse and even annoy citizens.

If members say 'we can't balance the budget,' 'we can't close unneeded military bases,' 'we can't judge the president's national security agenda,' then what is the institution for? After-the-fact oversight and getting appropriations crumbs for districts do not make a co-equal branch. By contrast, it's very rare for presidents, and even the Supreme Court, to say that they can't do their constitutional jobs.

What will need to be done to end the cycle of ambivalence — or can it end?

I don't see an end to the cycle because Congress has been eclipsed by the executive branch since the beginning of the 20th century. However, there are certain circumstances that can increase inter-branch conflict, which is considered healthy in separation of powers theory even as it can wear the patience of the public.

'Divided government' is the label political scientists use to describe one party in power in the Congress and the other party in power in the White House. Often during these moments, there is increased partisan bickering, but Congress stands up for itself more. However, even if the Republicans take back the Congress this year, as Democrats did in similar circumstances in 2006, it is hard for the speaker of the House or any other committee or party leader to rival the president in media coverage. That is one of the changes in politics that could not have been imagined by the Constitution's founders. They expected the president to be a unifying figure and built his election and institutional structure to be different from Congress, but only because they feared the House and Senate would run the show. We see that such ideas are quaint today.

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