Congressional Government

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In creating the Constitution, the Framers created a functional separation of powers, with separate institutions exercising the legislative, executive, and judicial powers. The Constitution also creates a system of checks and balances, however, with each of the three branches participating in the functions of the others to some degree. In creating this system, the Framers did not specify exactly how much power the various branches were to have relative to one another. As a consequence, the precise balance of power has been left to subsequent historical development.

The late nineteenth century was a period of legislative dominance of the federal government. In 1885, a young woodrow wilson described the workings of the constitutional system as "congressional government." The label has stuck as a description of the federal government from roughly 1867 to the turn of the century. This system did not arise by accident. It was a product of the political and constitutional struggles of the civil war. The victorious republican party was largely composed of former Whigs, who had originally organized in the 1830s in opposition to the strong presidency of andrew jackson, or "King Andy." Their preference for congressional leadership, however, was delayed by the exigencies of civil war, which required giving extraordinary powers to the Republican President abraham lincoln. Lincoln's death and disagreements with his successor, andrew johnson, led Congress to take legislative control of reconstruction. For the first time, Congress overrode a significant presidential veto. Soon, Congress routinely overrode Johnson's vetoes, before eventually attempting to remove him from office through an impeachment in 1867 for his resistance to congressional policy.

After the Johnson impeachment (and despite his acquittal), Presidents were on the political defensive and Congress effectively dictated national policy. Executive appointments were a crucial source of political power in the nineteenth century, as well as an important policy decision. In sharp contrast to the modern deference to presidential nominations, the postbellum U.S. senate aggressively used its confirmation powers to force Presidents to select officials who were friendly to Congress. At the same time, civil service reforms removed a potential tool for rewarding party loyalists from congressional party leaders, but it also took away a political weapon that earlier Presidents had used to win control of the political parties and exert pressure on legislators. The presidential appointing and removal power was carefully curtailed during this period.

Congress also dominated policymaking. In this period, federal policy was overwhelming made through legislation, which in turn was effectively made by congressional committees. The limitations on presidential appointments prevented the President from developing a system of advisors with whom to develop independent policy recommendations. Even when Presidents urged policies, their proposals carried little weight in what was seen as an exclusively legislative prerogative. The British observer James Bryce found that presidential messages had less effect than "an article in a prominent party newspaper," and their suggestions were "neglected." Congress also restricted presidential discretion in carrying out federal policy. The " executive power " was to be narrowly understood, requiring the implementation of the legislative will without any independent policy choice on the part of the President. When the federal government began to take on new regulatory burdens late in the century, Congress chose to create independent commissions or deal directly with executive departments rather than delegate additional powers to the President. A bureaucratic "fourth branch" was seen as preferable to a strengthened presidency.

Congressional government affected the stature as well as the power of the president. Presidential candidates during the period were creatures of the congressionally based political parties. Nominees were not intended to be threatening to existing congressional interests, and as a consequence, the late-nineteenth-century presidency attracted "small men," who came to office with little national reputation and gained no additional stature while in office. Presidents were merely caretakers, and their public appearances were few and largely ceremonial.

Congressional government arose through a combination of the scheme of government created by the separation of powers and the political interpretation of those constitutional powers. Congress had important tools that it was willing to use, such as the power to confirm or reject presidential appointments. And the political actors of the time generally agreed on a theory of government that emphasized the "popular branch" to the exclusion of executive power. Presidents spent the late nineteenth century gradually attempting to regain the influence that they had lost after the war, but congressional government was not overturned until America's emergence as a world power at the turn of the century and the rise of aggressive Presidents willing to challenge inherited political practices and constitutional understandings.

Keith E. Whittington


Binkley, Wilfred E. 1962 President and Congress, 3rd rev. ed. New York: Vintage.

Bryce, James 1941 The American Commonwealth, 3rd rev. ed. New York: Macmillan.

Wilson, Woodrow 1885 Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics. Boston, Mass.: Houghton, Mifflin.

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Congressional Government

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