June 10, 1921: The Day Congress Lost It’s Mojo

What is happening today in Washington, D.C. is a puzzle to many Americans. Not unlike Austin Powers who was frozen in the 1960s only to be thawed and thrust into 2013 America – he is both startled and chagrined by what he sees in today’s society.

The Occupy Wall Street and the TEA Party movements have both begun to realize that something is terribly wrong with our federal government. Special interests are holding all the power. If you are not at the table with the 1%, you are on the menu. But who is the real 1%? The answer is: The fourth branch of government – the Administrative Branch.

James Burnham, in his 1959 book Congress and the American Tradition, wrote, “[T]he political death of Congress would mean plebiscitary despotism for the United States in place of constitutional government, and thus the end of political liberty.” Burnham attributed the decline of Congress as a legislative body to the fact that, “Congress has let major policy decisions go by default to the unchecked will of the executive and the bureaucracy.”

The Administrative Branch of government, that Burnham warned against, was born on June 10, 1921 with the passage of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. This was landmark legislation that established the framework for the modern federal budget. The act was approved by President Warren G. Harding to provide a national budget system and an independent audit of government accounts. The Budget and Accounting Act led to the creation of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 created the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

John Marini, professor of political science at the University of Nevada-Reno, in a speech titled Budget Battles and the Growth of the Administrative State, stated, “As seen by the recent government shutdown and the showdown over the debt limit – the latest in a long series of such crises in Washington – the federal budget stands at the heart of American politics.”

Professor Marini notes, “In America, the administrative state traces its origins to the Progressive movement. Inspired by the theories of German political philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Progressives like Woodrow Wilson [who] believed that the erection of the modern state marked an ‘end of History’, a point at which there is no longer any need for conflict over fundamental principles. Politics at this point would give way to the administration, and administration becomes the domain not of partisans, but of neutral and highly-trained experts.”

Professor Marini states, “America’s Founding Fathers shared a radically different understanding, and understanding based not on history but on nature.”

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote that factionalism, “[I]s ‘sown in the nature of man’; thus there will always be political conflict – which at its starkest is a conflict between justice, the highest human aspiration concerning politics, and it opposite, tyranny.”

It is human nature itself that makes it necessary to place limits on the power of government!

Professor Marini notes, “Progressive leaders were openly hostile to the Constitution not only because it placed limits on government, but because it provided for no role for the federal government in the area of administration … [O]ne of the chief reform promoted by early progressives was an executive budget system – a budget that would allow progressive presidents to pursue the will of a national majority and establish a non-partisan bureaucracy to carry it out.”

“As a result, the ongoing use of Continuing Resolutions allows the bureaucracy to determine it own needs, free from detailed control by the legislative branch,” notes Professor Marini.

According to Professor Marini Congress has surrendered its legislative power to the bureaucracy. Congress is “not a legislative, but an administrative oversight body.” “Congress has become a major player in the administrative state precisely by surrendering its constitutional purpose and ceasing to defend limited government.”

Professore Marini warns, “Until either the administrative state or the Constitution is definitively delegitimized, the battle within both government and the electorate over the size and scope of the federal government – including government shutdowns and showdowns over the debt limit – will inevitably continue.”

Congress has lost its mojo. Will it ever get it back?