Agenda Control Is Not the Role of Any American President

By JOHN M. IMPERIALE | Oct 11, 2017

The U.S. Constitution, as originally drafted and adopted, was not perfect. And before anyone gets all defensive, consider such items as the three-fifths article, the lack of specificity about the Supreme Court, and the clumsy election of a president and vice president, among other things. What it did get perfect, though, and what has kept our democracy strong, is the balance of power established by the three branches of government. That critical principle is now very much in danger.

And our representatives in Washington are to blame.

It is a generally accepted principle that the courts should not make laws, especially not the Supreme Court. That is not the role of the judicial branch of government. Its job is to interpret the law. Both sides of the political spectrum agree with that simple premise, though admittedly with some leeway when it fits either side’s specific agenda. 

The legislative branch makes the laws. Simple enough.

The executive branch is supposed to enforce the law while running the ever-increasingly vast federal government. Legislatively, the president was meant to have no role beyond signing or vetoing laws presented to him by the Congress.

So why are we all so complacent about the “president’s legislative agenda”?

“Agenda control,” whereby the president can determine what bills go before the legislative body, is an accepted concept in government. Just not in the U.S.

In America, we have given legislative power to the people through their representatives in Congress. Yet Congress is currently back in session and anxiously going about the business of waiting to see exactly what legislation the president wants enacted or will accept. 

If that is all right with you, then every member of our do-nothing Congress should personally thank you for letting them off the hook. Perhaps Congressmen Frank LoBiondo and Tom MacArthur, the two representatives serving most of this paper’s readers, would like to begin. They are members of a House of Representatives that has ceded its constitutional responsibility to the president, and we keep re-electing them, so some sign of appreciation would seem in order.

Congressman LoBiondo sits on the House Armed Services Committee, which has “exclusive jurisdiction for: defense policy generally, ongoing military operations, the organization and reform of the Department of Defense and Department of Energy” among other responsibilities. Yet we wait to hear just the president’s legislative plans for the military and energy. Rep. LoBiondo is also on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. But we all wait in silence for Trump’s “massive” infrastructure plans.

Congressman MacArthur sits on the House Committee on Financial Services. That committee is waiting to hear what the president wants with regard to financial reform.

Of course, our two senators, Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, have also been rewarded by the voters in spite of legislative failures, but they have an excuse, even if each has a very Jerseyan excuse: Mr. Menendez is on trial for corruption and Mr. Booker is working on his image. Neither has time for much legislating.

I only mention these legislators because they are so close to home. But 535 members of Congress and 100 senators are at fault. And the fault begins with congressional leadership, or lack of it.

To be fair, presidents – executives with the responsibility of running the federal government according to the laws passed by Congress – have put their hands into the legislative mix long before President Trump. Every president has tried to influence Congress. The president’s State of the Union message, originally just a document sent to Congress, was meant to inform Congress of the president’s view of the needs, including legislative needs, of the country.

Washington fought for a national bank. Adams wanted the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson wanted repeal of most of Adams’ laws and so on and so on. The president’s role in legislative initiatives expanded around the turn of the 20th century with Theodore Roosevelt and has continued to grow. No president pushed more of his own legislation through than FDR, though that was in times of depression and war. 

But now it has gone too far. Now it is time to roll back this trend or the very foundation of our Constitution will crack. Here’s why: President Trump is pushing a “legislative agenda” that seems to please neither side of Congress, so nothing is getting done. Healthcare, which needs to be fixed, went nowhere. DACA is out; DACA is in; DACA is in limbo. The debt limit was not properly dealt with, and tax reform, along with every other issue, is held hostage by an executive with whom no one seems able to work.

This usurpation of power by the executive branch (or, as I prefer to think of it, this abdication of power by the legislative branch) grew in tandem with the growing might and power of political parties, but it is time, especially with this president, who owes no allegiance to any political party, to reverse this trend. 

The president, according to the Constitution, should “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” And while the chief executive may also recommend to the Congress for its consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient, nowhere does the Constitution suggest that the executive branch should set the legislative agenda.

We need to tell our representatives in Washington that it is their job to set the legislative agenda. Congressional committees need to do their job. Hold public hearings on major legislative issues, not just political hearings in the hopes of getting on TV with a good sound bite. Draft, revise, compromise, accomplish something. Put forth bills for public discussion. There needs to be floor debate on proposals from both sides of the aisle on all major issues. Congress must begin to once again be the legislative branch of government.

John M. Imperiale lives in Harvey Cedars and can be reached at 




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