WASHINGTON -- A new Capitol Visitor Center recently opened, just in time for the transformation of the Capitol building into a tomb for the antiquated idea that the legislative branch matters. The center is supposed to enhance the experience of visitors to Congress, although why there are visitors is a mystery.
Congress' marginalization was brutally underscored when, after Congress did not authorize $14 billion for General Motors and Chrysler, the executive branch said, in effect: Congress' opinions are mildly interesting, so we will listen very nicely -- then go out and do precisely what we want.
Friday the president gave the two automakers access to money Congress explicitly did not authorize. More money -- up to $17.4 billion -- than had been debated, thereby calling to mind Winston Churchill on naval appropriations: "The Admiralty had demanded six ships: the economists offered four: and we finally compromised on eight."
The president is dispensing money from the $700 billion Congress provided for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The unfounded assertion of a right to do this is notably brazen, given the indisputable fact that if Congress had known that TARP -- supposedly a measure for scouring "toxic"
assets from financial institutions -- was to become an instrument for unconstrained industrial policy, it would not have been passed.
If TARP funds can be put to any use the executive branch fancies because TARP actually is a blank check for that branch, then the only reason no rules are being broken is that there are no rules. This lawlessness tarted up as law explains the charade of Vice President Dick Cheney warning Republican senators that if they did not authorize the $14 billion, the GOP would again be regarded as the party of Herbert Hoover.
Surely Cheney, a disparager of Congress and advocate of extravagant executive prerogatives, knew that the president considered the Senate's consent irrelevant.
Evidence that casualness about legality is inherent in big government is found in H.W. Brands' new biography "A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt." FDR became president on Saturday, March 4, 1933. Banks were closed that day and the next, temporarily preventing panicked depositors from withdrawing their money. At 1 a.m. Monday, FDR ordered all banks closed for four days, hoping that the fever would break. His act may have been prudent. But was it legal? Brands writes: