Congress must reassert its legislative authority

It is tempting to claim that resource allocation questions are starker than ever. The classic formulation in political science is guns or butter. Today, it is vaccines, PPE, financial support to ailing businesses and the unemployed, and deteriorating infrastructure from electric grids to water systems. And those are just a sampling of expensive challenges in headlines from February. But we havebeen here before, and the 117th Congress is not the first to meet at a time of great national foment.

We face some of the greatest challenges in a generation. These challenges have exposed dysfunctional government institutions and outdated policies. They also present legislators with the special obligation to tone down the rhetoric and scale back the ambitions of winner-take-all policy proposals.

The policies enacted in the coming two years can put America on a path toward greater resilience and fuel a durable and equitable economic renewal. And while good policy is necessary, it is not sufficient. How we make collective decisions, the institutions and processes for making the rules that everyone must live by, also demands careful attention.

Members of the 117th Congress have a fundamental choice to make. They can reassert their legislative authority, or they can let the executive branch do their job for them.

The Constitution outlines two essential functions for the legislative branch. Congress is imbued with legislative power, to write laws of general applicability, and with the power to check the executive branch through oversight and the power of the purse.

Our new president began his term with plenty of energy. In less than a fortnight, President Biden issued more than 40 executive actions, including at least 25 executive orders and 10 presidential memos. Governance by pen and phone, through unilateral action and with the presumption of legality unless and until challenged in court, weakens the appropriate role of the legislature in our federalist system.

Nearly all of these actions are encouraged by the failures of past Congresses to perform their core roles. In general, Congress should delegate less to the executive branch, and when it must, delegate with more specificity. It should purposefully review and correct agencies’ implementation of the law regardless of which party controls the oversight committees or the White House.

A priority for this Congress should be to look for ways to facilitate access to potentially life-saving medical care. These include permanently repealing rules that hinder or forbid telemedicine, safeguarding pharmaceutical innovation by rejecting price controls on prescription drugs, increasing price transparency by giving patients greater responsibility for healthcare decisions, and modernizing rules for testing and evaluating new drugs, vaccines, and other innovative treatments.

In the area of technology and telecommunications, the COVID-19 crisis has made obvious the need to maintain reliable connectivity. The 2018 repeal of public utility-style “net neutrality” rules for internet service providers catalyzed new investment in communications infrastructure, which enabled online networks to withstand the added stress resulting from people shifting many activities online. Yet, there is more that Congress can do to empower private action to improve resiliency and access throughout the communications and media ecosystem.

Another key component of economic recovery is free trade. Unfortunately, the trade system has been under attack by politicians from both parties. Finding our way out of the current impasse can lead us toward a more open world and better relations with international partners and allies.

In the face of adversity, Americans demonstrate remarkable resilience, creativity, and entrepreneurship. It has been true for hundreds of years and especially so in the past year. This can be seen everywhere, from telework to multiple coronavirus vaccines to small businesses finding new ways to thrive. Time and again, ingenuity and innovation prove essential to economic recovery and a path forward for tens of thousands of local communities.

People deserve more than a recovery. The 117th Congress has a role to play if its members choose to pursue it.