President Trump’s inability or unwillingness to lead on a legislative agenda has been cast as bad news for conservatism. But his weakness may trigger a renaissance of conservatism properly understood.
Relations with Russia may or may not be, as the President said, at an “all-time and very dangerous low”—the Cuban Missile Crisis called and wants its ominous superlatives back—but the good news is that constitutional conflict is at a recent high. Congress is acting as independently as it has in a long time, including periods of split partisan control.
The particular genius of Marbury v. Madison was John Marshall’s act of jujitsu. President Jefferson wanted William Marbury kept off the federal bench and let it be known he would defy any Supreme Court order to the contrary, so Marshall delivered that outcome while seizing the larger prize of judicial review. Two centuries on, President Jefferson’s successor Donald Trump is reduced not to defying the Court but rather to tweeting ruefully that the judiciary’s consideration of his travel ban is “slow and political.”
James Madison famously sketched an invisible-hand theory of institutional competition in The Federalist No. 51.
The first constitutional test of the new era will be answered less by Donald Trump than by Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.): namely, whether the congressional leadership delivers to the chief magistrate the news that Capitol Hill is not a subsidiary of the White House.
With the US House of Representatives representing the people, and the US Senate representing the states (more so prior to the adoption of the 17th Amendment, but that’s another discussion), the US Congress is a recognizable extension of the “mixed-government” rationale for legislative bicameralism.
Last week I discussed why bicameralism is not necessarily a status-quo preserving institution, at least in the sense that conventional wisdom suggests bicameral legislatures produce less legislation relative to analogously situated (however defined) unicameral legislatures.
Commentators often ignore that in “strong” bicameral systems, as exist in the U.S., “second” legislative chambers can initiate legislation itself as well as kill legislation approved by the other chamber. Depending on how much legislation each chamber initiates, and on cross-chamber kill rates, it’s entirely possible that a bicameral legislature will enact more legislation than a similarly-situated unicameral legislature.
To be sure, it is a bit of a bait-and-switch to purport to consider the impact of veto players on legislative production and then initially discuss an institution that can initiate legislation as well as stop legislation. So let’s now face the original question fairly: What about institutions that can only veto legislation without also having the power to initiate legislation? Think of judicial review.
Conventional wisdom is that separation-of-power political systems are inherently conservative in the sense of being a status-quo preserving institution. As one adds veto points to the legislative process, the thought goes, less legislation will be implemented relative to a system with fewer veto points.