It is no secret that the 2020 Democratic presidential primary is attracting a lot of potential candidates and, by some reports, could even be the largest presidential primary of a single party since the popularization of primary elections. The growing field immediately calls to mind the raucous and crowded 2016 Republican presidential primary, which had a total of 17 candidates for president at its height.
As of this writing, the Democratic field is not far behind with 12 candidates already announced and more expected to enter the race in the coming months. Interestingly, over half of the announced candidates are members of Congress. This led Democratic Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) to remark that “it’s important for a few [Democrats] to stay in the United States Senate” when questioned about his own intentions to enter the crowded field.
First, it should be said that the presidency is a great and powerful job to have, with the position’s oath of office — the only oath of office explicitly stated in the Constitution — charging holders to “solemnly swear (or affirm) that [they] will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of [their] Ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” To carry out such a pivotal role requires a great deal of responsibility, and the Founders thought so too.
In writing Federalist 70 to defend the powers granted to the executive by the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton wrote that a “feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government,” and energy for “decision, activity, secrecy, and despatch” are necessary to keep the executive branch on an equal footing with the other two branches. That said, it would shock the Founders to see such principles taken to extremes by later presidents, especially since many cases were at the insistence of Congress.
The Founders thought the president should be strong enough to serve as an adequate check on Congress, and it used to be the case that positions in Congress were, in some cases, even more coveted than the role of president. Indeed, elections for Speaker of the House used to be far more contentious than the inside-DC intrigue we are used to with current Speaker elections.
Historically, Speaker of the House used to be the position in Washington candidates fiercely fought over. Consider the fact that between 1789 and 1923, it was common for Speaker elections to drag on for multiple votes because so many candidates put their name forth and could not receive a majority to gain the position. The Speaker election for the 34th Congress — held in the increasingly unstable pre-Civil War political climate — required an eye-popping 133 ballots before Speaker Nathaniel Banks was finally chosen.
Everyone wanted to be Speaker of the House just as everyone in our time wants to be President of the United States. This was the case because Congress understood itself as strong in comparison to the president, and both branches were confident in the roles they had as competitors in the space outlined in the Constitution.
Today’s elected officials want to be president because they recognize it as the position where they can get things done, to the detriment of both their positions and our system as a whole. Instead of checks and balances, the system we have now is one in which legislating, as was the case with the Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare, is considered a “critical first step” that should be followed up with executive action to “ensure a stable transition to any law Congress passes.”
At worst, members now actively see themselves as incidental. Upon President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on the grounds of border security, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stated that he was “going to support the national emergency declaration” before passage of a bill that deliberately omitted funding the president desired. If this is the position of the Senate Majority Leader, it is no wonder so many senators think they would get more done as president.
It cannot be lost in this conversation that coveting the presidency over the role of a congressman or senator is a sign of trouble in how members of the legislative branch interpret the significance of their roles — that is to say they don’t see them as significant at all. I have noted before that Congress has surrendered its Constitutional role in our time of ever-growing executive and judicial power, but the better prognosis might be that its members are suffering from an institutional ebb in self-esteem.
After all, the branch that has the power to levy taxes and tariffs, declare war, advise and consent on political appointees, and be the sole authors of legislation to perform these functions should see its role as essential in representing the interests of the voters who put them there.
Congress could use a self-esteem boost, and we should want a return to members aspiring to be Speaker of the House instead of President of the United States. Until then, lawmakers will continue to defer to the president as they sit in the metaphorical waiting room of their seat in Congress.