- - Monday, March 3, 2014


Today is the 225th anniversary of the First Congress under the Constitution meeting in the then-capital of New York City. Unfortunately, Americans have never really celebrated this historic event.

The bicentennial anniversary in 1989 was low-key, with only specially engraved coins recognizing the birthday. The biggest celebration occurred in 1939, the 150th benchmark, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to a joint session of Congress, an address that attracted front-page press attention.

Lest we forget, however, before there was a president of the United States, there was a Congress. Under the nation’s first form of government during the American Revolution (the Articles of Confederation), it was the Continental Congress that made the laws.

There was no chief executive, only a presiding officer without power. The Continental Congress accomplished much, including the negotiation of a successful peace treaty with Britain.

However, it wasn’t without faults, which is one reason why the preamble to the Constitution reads “in order to form a more perfect union.” When the First Congress under the Constitution convened on March 4, 1789, its first activity was to count the electoral votes that would indicate the election of President George Washington and Vice President John Adams.

Of course, perhaps the main reason Congress has gotten short shrift from Americans in general and historians in particular is that, unlike presidents, Congresses can’t be personified into a single leader.

However, a good case can be made that it was Congress, not presidents, that contributed the most to the nation’s democracy and prosperity.

Not at first, however; from the time of George Washington to John Quincy Adams, presidents and Congresses illustrated a shared responsibility.

“King” Andrew Jackson broke this smooth operation by illustrating excessive powers, but from the end of his presidency until Theodore Roosevelt became chief executive in 1901, Congress, under a series of mostly weak chief executives (try to name them in order), oversaw the nation’s most rapid economic development and democratization.

Never in the history of any other nation had a country with so much territory been so rapidly populated into states (contrast Canada and Russia), creating a vast ocean-to-ocean market that was continually replenished by immigrants, a high birthrate, and upward mobility.

It was a country almost totally self-sufficient, raising revenue by tariffs on foreign goods. Laws were conspicuous by their absence, with federal budget surpluses far more typical than deficits.

Reform and wars in the 20th century contributed to increased powers of White House occupants. So, too, did the professionalization of politics; that is, candidates illustrating a lengthy pursuit of the highest office, as opposed to the average citizen (Dwight Eisenhower is a classic example) being drafted.

Not surprisingly, when Republican presidents, most notably Richard Nixon, expanded Oval Office tentacles, it was dubbed by liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. as “the imperial presidency,” which was the title of his 1973 book.

When Democrat Barack Obama exceeded even prior boundaries set by activist presidencies, it was rationalized by his followers as a response to obstreperous congressional Republicans.

To be sure, in retrospect, the Constitution, in spite of its commitment to a “more perfect union,” was still flawed, as illustrated by the debate in the Constitutional Convention and in the Federalist Papers.

The assumption was that George Washington would be the first president — a man of the highest honor and integrity — who would forsake kingly powers and, therefore, establish precedent for his successors, all of whom, so it was thought, would be selected by an Electoral College system insulated from popular voting and passion.

Therefore, the Constitution made it extremely difficult to remove such a winnowed president from office, which, in fact, has never been done.

More worrisome to Congress on its birthday, however, is not its past, but its future. especially in view of Mr. Obama’s allegedly humorous off-the-cuff remark on his recent visit to Monticello: “That’s the good thing as a president,” he quipped, “I can do anything I want.”

Contrast that with President George H.W. Bush’s much more acceptable rant on his power: “I’m president of the United States,” he shouted, “and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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