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Calling All Roundheads
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Calling All Roundheads

The case for congressional superiority.

The Capitol building. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In a recent episode of The Remnant, Jonah Goldberg referred to our mutual friend  Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review as a “Roundhead.” By this he meant to indicate that Charlie is of English background, which is one way to distinguish him from the e-less Charlie Cook who writes the Cook Political Report. There are a lot of Charlie Cooks out there, as it turns out—another Charlie Cook writes cookbooks, meaning that these cookbooks are Cook books—and so some disambiguation is necessary at times. But there is another sense in which my onetime podcasting partner is a “Roundhead,” one that I hope catches on and spreads: He is what would have been known as a “Parliamentarian” during the English Civil Wars, a partisan of the legislative branch over the executive. In the American context, that makes him what is sometimes known as a “congressional supremacist.” 

(The Roundheads were called that because their ranks were dominated by Puritans who wore their hair short, in contrast to the flowing locks of the monarchical Cavaliers. At least, that’s the story: In reality, English political coiffure turns out to be more complicated. Our Charlie does not sport a Puritan buzz cut. Also, Charlie is an atheist rather than a member of the Church of England, which, from my Catholic point of view, doesn’t seem like that big a difference, but, apparently, the Puritans cared a great deal about that sort of thing.) 

There are two schools of thought about the relative powers of the three branches into which our federal government is divided. One is the theory of “coequal branches,” which holds that the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches are equal in status and in power, and that none is subordinate to the others. The idea of coequal branches fortifies the principle of separation of powers—how can powers be truly separated if the three branches are not mutually independent of one another? But if the idea of coequal branches comports well with the theory of how our constitutional order is supposed to work, congressional supremacy is more in accord with the actual text of the Constitution. We do not need to read too much into the fact that setting up the legislative branch is the Constitution’s first order of business (Article I) but we do need to understand the Constitution invests a very mighty share of national governing power in Congress compared to the other two branches—and why it does that. 

The president may have a good deal of independent discretion in conducting foreign policy, but only Congress can declare war or ratify a treaty. High-level executive appointments require the consent of the Senate, but no legislative office is subject to the endorsement of another branch. The president can veto a bill, but Congress can override that veto and has the final say. Congress can remove a president, a Supreme Court justice, or any federal officer through impeachment, but no member of the executive or judicial branch has the power to remove a member of Congress. Congress has the power to make “exceptions” and “regulations” regarding the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction. Congress holds all taxing and spending authority. So sure, the branches are coequal, except for Congress’ predominant role in … war, peace, treaties, taxes, spending, confirming high-level personnel, removing problem federal officers up to and including presidents, and—what else was there? Oh, yes—writing all the laws.

The practical supremacy of Congress in our constitutional order is one of those truths that would seem to be self-evident. But I’ll bet most of you don’t know off the top of your head who the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is—and, being Dispatch readers, you are probably in the top 1 or 2 percent in terms of being well-informed about these kinds of things. On the other hand, most of you know who the third- and fourth-place contenders for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination are. I recently was on a flight out of Dallas with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and lots of people in the airport recognized him and wanted to talk. Christie is a very approachable and gregarious guy; it is easy to see why he has had a successful career in politics. But he is not going to be the Republican nominee in 2024, and he is not going to be president. Nonetheless, he is a political celebrity; on the other hand, an important legislator such as John Barrasso (the Senate Republican conference chairman) could walk around DFW all day without anybody taking notice—he’s just another guy peering into his laptop at the Centurion Lounge.

I have a literary/cinematic theory of American politics. As writers of thriller novels or action movies will advise you, the easiest way to keep the audience’s attention is to make sure that the hero is present in as many scenes as possible; and, where the hero is not present, the main villain or monster should be at center stage. You saw this in the film noir classics, which were heavily influenced by hardboiled detective fiction such as the novels of Mickey Spillane and his Prohibition-era antecedents, where the protagonist was present in every scene because the story was almost invariably told in his voice and from his point of view. In the United States, we have 435 members of the House of Representatives, 100 senators, nine Supreme Court justices and 861 other Article III judges, 25 Cabinet members (26 if you count the vice president, which, sure), 194 ambassadors, etc.—and one president. Good stories may lean on a heroic narrative arc, but good government looks a lot more like an endless series of committee meetings. When it comes to Americans’ political engagement, we have become something a lot less like active citizens and something a lot more accurately described as content consumers—and the content we prefer to consume is heroic, action-movie stuff. That works both ways: There have been a lot of action movies featuring U.S. presidents as action heroes (Air Force One, etc.) but not a whole lot focused on the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee. 

Another way of saying this is that we have a tendency toward monarchy in the most literal sense of the word—mono-archy, with the state’s power effectively invested in one man. Kingship speaks to something deep in us as a species: The institution of one-man rule, or some near variation of it, is far too widespread across cultures and times to be a matter of mere political innovation. When the Romans slid from republic to principate, they were not really creating something new—they were reverting to something old. The Romans, of course, knew that, which is why they did not call their new old-fashioned headmen kings, rex being a kind of dirty word in Latin. No self-respecting Roman would deign to live under a king—but a commander in chief is another story! The Latin word for commander in chief is imperator, from which our English emperor is derived. The humble fish once known as slimehead was rebranded orange roughy as it made its way to fancy dinner plates, but, call it what you will, it still stinks after three days. Whatever you call the mono in your monarchy, it is the fact of the mono, not the label you put on it, that really matters.

Relatively few people say they support one-man rule, and relatively few people say that they think one-man rule is a good form of government. Even the real-deal monarchists among us are mostly monarchists on the Anglo-European model, advocates of constitutional monarchies with parliaments exercising most of the real political power. People and peoples fall into strongman government—into monarchism or caudillo-ism or dictatorship—simply by following the bouncing ball. A single point of focus, in motion, easily commands the eye, and, the eye being conquered, the heart and mind soon follow. In one of the other very quotable scenes from A Man for All Seasons, an exasperated Henry VIII limns the political currents of his regime: “There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown; and those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I’m their tiger; there’s a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves.” 

The president moves

Congress moves, too, but it moves very slowly, and its locomotion is crablike, sideways. The legislative branch does not stride forward in a heroic fashion. It isn’t supposed to, of course, and it would be bad if it did—but the public eye is always hungry for a hero. That is a failure of republican—note the lowercase “r” there—self-respect. Citizens are supposed to be the heroes of republican government, but we aren’t, probably because we do not feel that we are able to play the heroic role, the forces that rule our world being so complex and inscrutable: viruses that are too small to see, global markets that are too big to see. I do not think that Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s many decades spent trying to make our laws a little better were any less well-spent than Horatius’ lonesome stand at the bridge, but nobody will write any epic poems about the Moynihan Report

Heroic politics is almost always bad politics—it is how you get demagogues, dictators, and emperors. It is also how you end up with so-called conservatives cheering for the prospect of a demagogue, dictator, or emperor—or, short of that, offering hilariously limp apologia for those who do dream of such things. 

Thomas Jefferson’s political organ came to be known as the Republican Party (which, confusingly, is the forebear of the modern Democratic Party rather than of the modern party that bears the same name) because its leaders hoped to act on a republican agenda—and there is more to being a republic than simply not being a monarchy. The Jeffersonian Republicans (the label “Democratic-Republican Party” is a historians’ convenience) opposed what they saw as the covert monarchism of George Washington and John Adams as well as the imperialism and nationalism of the Federalists and the so-called American System. And no less significant, they bristled at what they saw as the aristocratic pretensions of their political rivals. Jeffersonian Republicans were against the centralization of power in the national government, and detested the homogenizing effects of that centralization. They argued for a smaller federal government and, for a while, even delivered it, with the Jefferson administration and its congressional allies lowering federal spending and reducing the national debt. 

But beyond less debt and lower spending, what republicanism requires—in our time no less than theirs—is an expansive and active conception of citizenship and an arrangement of government that puts power in the places where it is closest to those citizens: in the Congress (and, especially, in the House) at the federal level, and in the state legislatures rather than in the federal machine. This isn’t exactly a democratic argument, in that it would be better to move power from the executive back to Congress even if we still had senators who were not directly elected (a man can dream!) and even if the fortification of non-elected institutions (especially the political parties) resulted in a system that was less strictly democratic, less majoritarian, and less responsive to elections—and especially less responsive to primary elections. In any kind of representative government (and in many kinds of non-representative government), government will be dominated by those who show up. A big idea of citizenship means one in which there are lots of ways to show up—ways well beyond simply showing up to vote in years in which there is a presidential election. 

It is not a bad thing that there are people who serve for many decades in Congress or in other government offices. But having more people who are not—dread words!—career politicians rotating through the state legislatures and the Congress might be a good thing, too: It is not as though we cannot have both, a mix of long-term institutionalists and highly focused short-term reformers and single-issue advocates. But none of that is going to matter very much if we continue slipping into a kind of soft principate, with the president bestriding the political world like … whatever imitation of a Colossus that Joe Biden or Donald Trump can manage. 

What does that mean, practically? It means regular order, with Congress making appropriations in the correct constitutional way rather than running the country on an endlessly ad hoc basis through emergency funding mechanisms and omnibus bills. It means less congressional deference to presidents—especially when the president is a member of the same party as the congressional majority. It means no more regulatory enabling acts, open-ended delegations of power from the legislative to the executive, as in the grievously misnamed Affordable Care Act. It means no more open-ended authorizations for the use of military force. It means less executive imperialism within Congress, too, a turn away from the Nancy Pelosi model of what amounts to a speaker’s dictatorship within the House—with legislation exnihilated into being by the leadership and then subjected to an up-or-down vote with very little debate or discussion—and back toward the old, cumbrous, and excruciatingly boring mode of lawmaking, with its hearings and fact-finding and negotiations, all the embarrassing business of making law in public

But a republic is a public thing. 

Economics for English Majors

A very useful concept from economics just now is substitution. How do you know if one product is a substitute for another? Generally speaking, products are substitutes if demand for one increases when the price of the other goes up. Some substitutes are obvious: If Nike athletic shoes and Reebok athletic shoes are functionally pretty much the same thing, then we would expect to see demand for Reeboks go up when Nike prices rise. If that isn’t the case—and it often is not the case for very brand-driven products such as sneakers—then that suggests that the products are not very good substitutes even though they are functionally identical because it is not the function that sells the shoe but the brand or some other factor. 

When new-car prices spiked to record highs in the post-COVID-19 period and kept going up, demand for used cars went up—and, since there was no commensurate increase in supply, prices for used cars went up, too. Used-car prices have for a long time moved roughly in tandem with new-car prices, which suggests that, for many buyers, used cars are a pretty good substitute for new cars. Prices and consumption levels also suggest that two of the things that our progressive friends push as substitutes for old-fashioned petroleum-powered cars—electric vehicles and mass transit—probably are not very good substitutes, at least for a great many buyers. Car prices are much higher today than they were before the pandemic, but mass-transit usage is lower, having bounced back and apparently plateaued at about 80 percent of pre-COVID usage. That’s interesting in that it holds true even in many places where mass transit is massively subsidized or offered at no point-of-use cost to riders. Electric vehicles remain a very small part of the overall U.S. market for cars, SUVs, and light-duty trucks (less than 1 percent of overall vehicle sales, according to J.D. Power), and demand for EVs does not seem to correspond very closely to fluctuations in petroleum prices. I happen to like some EVs and think they are a good choice for most drivers, but, the thing about markets is, everybody gets a say.

Some of this stuff requires looking at the issue from a couple of steps back. One of the reasons you don’t see people abandoning cars for mass transit, for example, is that housing along the most desirable mass-transit corridors tends to be expensive (see Philadelphia’s Main Line or the New York area’s Metro North), while the most price-sensitive commuters will (in many areas) be the ones who have the least ready access to good transit options. That we make it so difficult to build affordable housing in so many places produces results that naturally show up in markets beyond housing. In that sense, progressives trying to get more people to use mass transit aren’t really just telling commuters that they need to drive less—they are telling them that they need to get a home in Stamford or Villanova or Boston’s West End. 

Periods of high inflation are not much fun for anybody, but rising prices do help reveal substitutes. As it turns out, there are lots of substitutes for products in the apparel and electronics markets, but, as you might have guessed, not for baby formula.

Words About Words

As a reader points out, “revert back” is a redundancy; as with the dreaded “advocate for,” the preposition is unnecessary, because it is right there in the word itself: re- in revert, and ad- in advocate. Because we need a redundant word for redundancy, these fall into the category of things known as pleonasms. Some pleonasms are idiomatic (safe haven, eye witness, added bonus) and some are used for rhetorical effect (I saw it with my own eyes). But, sometimes, they are just clumsy writing or clumsy thinking. It isn’t always better to use as few words as possible (according to the guy who writes 121-word opening sentences), but economy is generally desirable. And if you are going to write irritating little things like “revert back,” you’d better be doing it on purpose, for effect. 

Elsewhere

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In Closing

As you may know, there has been some debate over the years about how to write the word we commonly use for the hatred of Jews: anti-Semitism? anti-semitism? antisemitism? Etc. There is even some question about whether we should use the word at all: Like ethnic cleansing, it is a kind of euphemism, popularized as a scientific-sounding replacement for the German Judenhass. I myself have long preferred “Jew-hating weirdo” or other designations along those lines, which, unfortunately, seems a little lighthearted for the current moment. Old-school Jew-hatred is back in the news—and back in our inboxes, I’m afraid—with the familiar cretins playing the greatest hits: The Rothschilds secretly run the world! The Jews are the “synagogue of Satan”! etc. Without downplaying the ugliness and the potential danger of this moment, it is worth remembering that this stuff has been around forever. Someone forwarded me a “political newsletter” from a crackpot dilettante that hit all the familiar themes, and it was more or less indistinguishable from the conspiracy mimeographs and faxes that went around in the 1980s and 1990s. This kind of thing has been around for a very long time, but great age has not conferred any respectability on it. It is like syphilis, which first emerged in human populations around 3000 B.C.—an apparently ineradicable part of the human condition, an infection of the brain. 

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.