Congress’ abdication of responsibility predates Gingrich, however. The Constitution clearly provided that the United States would not send its children to fight and die in foreign wars unless the people themselves, through their elected representatives, thought the sacrifice necessary. Although presidents command the military, they do not decide when troops are to be sent into combat, except in the case of invasion or civil insurrection. Reacting to presidential overreach (beginning with Truman taking the nation to war in Korea without first seeking congressional authorization, and continuing through an undeclared war in Vietnam during the Johnson and Nixon years), Congress eventually stepped in, years later, in an attempt to reassert its authority but clumsily did the reverse: Under the 1973 War Powers Act, hailed by its sponsors as a means to restrain the executive, presidents were given free rein to go to war so long as they notified Congress first. Members of Congress congratulated themselves for providing that they could step in within 60 days to call a halt to a presidentially initiated conflict although it was not likely that Congress would pull back support with American troops engaged in combat. In that one spectacularly ill-considered action, the Congress stepped back from its single-most important obligation: deciding, as the peoples’ representatives, if and when America would wage war.
Other international issues speak to a similar trend of congressional retreat from constitutional responsibilities. During the just-ended presidential election, both Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders were sharply critical of international trade agreements that they believed disadvantage the United States. Since Congress is the only body authorized to write American law, it had acted over the years to provide safeguards on matters ranging from environmental protections to worker safety. But for decades, it has repeatedly surrendered its power to protect American interests in trade deals, bowing to presidents’ requests to simply accept whatever agreements the executive strikes with other countries (often without any congressional input). As a result, Congress has agreed to take up trade pacts on a “fast track,” denying its members the right to make any changes in the terms of the agreement, even though the Constitution explicitly gives Congress the authority to make the laws that govern international commerce. Congress has stripped itself of the power to insist that international trade be conducted in a way not harmful to American national interests and, specifically, the interests of American workers.
Americans have become accustomed to seeing Congress—especially when it’s controlled by the same party that holds the White House—wait for presidents to submit their proposed federal budgets before beginning serious discussions about spending decisions. But presidents prepare national budget proposals not because they are entitled to tell Congress what to do, but only because Congress has tasked the president with doing so in order to give the legislature a better sense of his thinking—and give members of Congress the chance to gather the information they need from the executive branch to decide how much to spend (and on what) and whether to increase taxes to pay for it.