Feb. 11, 2016

Fisher: No Labels Would Hurt Separation of Powers

In the July 14 New York Times, Peter Baker describes a list of recommendations offered by the bipartisan group No Labels. Its announced goal: make government function more effectively. In large part, however, it would push the United States away from separation of powers and checks and balances to one closer to the British parliamentary model.

No Labels proposes that the president hold monthly news conferences and twice-a-year citizen news conferences, meet quarterly with the Congressional leadership of both parties and submit to 90-
minute question-and-answer sessions each month on the floor of Congress, similar to the British question hour. In its report “Make Congress Work!,” No Labels expresses regret that campaign promises to fix government are regularly followed by “poisonous rhetoric and partisan posturing.” Anyone watching the British question hour is treated to a stream of ad hominems, poisonous rhetoric and partisan posturing. Why expect a U.S. version to function differently?

Why would our political system be better if the president talks more than he currently does? As evident with President Barack Obama and his predecessors, talk and rhetoric do not automatically lead to improved results. What is needed is political judgment and realistic legislative agendas. Presidents and their advisers regularly demonstrate few of those skills. Talk can be helpful in winning a campaign. It has scant value in actually governing.

No Labels is impressed by what happened in January 2010, when Obama attended a Republican retreat to publicly debate the merits of the administration’s proposed health care law. “For a few hours at least, the American public got to see our leaders engage and truly debate one another. We haven’t seen anything like it since.”

There was little in the way of genuine debate. Obama dominated the discussion and marginalized Republican lawmakers. Given that experience, there would be no invitation for a repeat performance.

No Labels favors new powers for the president, such as authority to recommend the deletion of individual items in spending bills. It explains that when a president receives an appropriations bill he must choose between vetoing the entire bill and accepting “some really unappealing” items. The solution: authorize the president to return those items to Congress for an expedited, up-or-down vote. This may sound appealing, but the procedure would shift the spending power from Congress to the president. More likely: to political appointees and agency careerists. Consider also the president’s opportunity to coerce lawmakers. A typical quid pro quo: “I won’t put your pet project on the rescission list if you agree to back my spending initiatives.” Through this accommodation, spending would go up, not down. It would certainly not deliver what No Labels advocates: “more transparency and accountability in the legislative process.”

As proposed by No Labels, presidential appointment powers would be greatly strengthened. Nominees must be confirmed or rejected within 90 days. If the Senate failed to reject nominees during that period, they would be automatically confirmed. The Senate’s advice and consent function under the Constitution would disappear. Nonaction during a period of 90 days cannot be considered “consent.” Why would Senators cede that authority to a president?

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