When former Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.) looks at the legislative body he served in for 16 years, he sees a government in crisis.
Dismayed by the current state of affairs in Washington, D.C., Edwards, now a lecturer at Princeton University and leader of an Aspen Institute fellowship program, sat down to pen “Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great
American Political Movement Got Lost — and How It Can Find Its Way Back.”
But contrary to what the title of his book might imply, the crisis he sees isn’t just about a party in peril. A longtime leading voice in conservative politics, Edwards wrote the book, released March 1, to address what he sees as a dangerous imbalance in power among the three branches of government.
“We call it ‘Reclaiming Conservatism’ because there is a piece in the book … about how over time the priorities and fundamental principles of the conservative movement have evolved and changed into something very different that what it originally was,” Edwards said Thursday in a talk at the Law Library of Congress. “But I wanted to talk about the Constitution.”
In the past eight years, Edwards said, the executive branch has expanded its role and circumvented the power of Congress through issuing an unprecedented number of signing statements and blatantly ignoring Congress’ orders.
A president who overreaches his power is not unusual, Edwards argues. What is unusual, he said, is a Congress willing to acquiesce with the president’s requests at the cost of abdicating the duties and obligations vested in the legislative branch.
“I don’t blame the president for overreaching — presidents do that,” Edwards said in an interview. “The whole concept of our government, the whole constitutional concept, is that it is up to one branch to check the other. It is up to Congress to check the president.”
Though Edwards said the situation has worsened over the past eight years, he noted that the transition to a political climate where “party trumps Constitution, party trumps all” is the result of longer-term influences.
The problem is not unique to the Republican Party, but is connected to several shifts in political power and strategy, he said. Such factors, Edwards said, include the influence of former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), whose “political playbook” promoted fierce partisan conflict aimed at debilitating the Democratic Party over fostering debate on ideas and delivering solutions to the country’s problems. The rise of the constant campaign also has created a climate in which politicians value party loyalty over their constitutional obligation to run the country, Edwards said.
“The Congress depends on individuals the day the polls close saying, ‘I was a candidate, now I’m a Congressman,’ and the job changes from partisan warfare to governing our country,” Edwards said at his book talk.
In his book, Edwards maps out eight key steps to reclaiming the reverence for the Constitution he says Congress has lost. Though the steps are aimed at adjusting the mindset of those governing the country, Edwards said his ultimate goal is to challenge both policymakers and the public to re- examine the relative roles of Congress and the president and demand a change of course.
Things only can get so bad before there is a movement for change, and Edwards wants voters to consider the issues raised in his book when they hit the polls in November.
Though he initially was critical of the entire crop of contenders for the Republican nomination, Edwards said in an interview that he is pleased to see the party’s presumptive nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), publicly swear off signing statements.
More important than the outcome of the presidential race, however, is ensuring that Congress reclaims its independence and restores a constitutional government when the nation’s 44th president takes office, Edwards said.
“The president is not the head of government. He is the head of one of three equal branches of government,” he said during the book talk. “It’s not the job of the Congress to operate as if they were White House staff.”
Edwards’ hope is that his readers will stand up to their Representatives running for re- election and ask them to justify their work in Washington and renew a commitment to fulfilling the duties and responsibilities of the legislative branch.
“The American people need to hold Congress accountable,” he said in an interview. “It’s not a Republican pep club and a Democratic pep club. It’s the legislative branch of the most powerful government in the world.”