Congressional Ambivalence: The Political Burdens of Constitutional Authority

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To understand American democracy is to appreciate the political choices that arise because of overlapping constitutional boundaries. The separation of powers system was designed to encourage institutional conflict about the meaning of the "national interest." However, not all branches are up to the task. On controversial issues, members of Congress routinely surrender power to the executive branch in their struggle to balance conflicting political and policy pressures. After delegating power away, Congress tries to get it back, often without success.

In Congressional Ambivalence: The Political Burdens of Constitutional Authority, Jasmine Farrier characterizes legislative power in recent decades as a cycle of give and take, examining high-profile issues such as base closures, trade, and post-9/11 security at home and abroad. Through primary source materials such as bills, committee reports, and the Congressional Record, Farrier demonstrates that Congress is caught between abdication and ambition, and that this ambivalence influences numerous facets of the legislative process. Along the way, she challenges conventional wisdom about congressional party resurgence, the power of oversight, and the return of the so-called imperial presidency.

Farrier explores specific instances of disorder following congressional delegation of power, including Congress's use of new bills, obstruction, and public criticism to salvage its lost power, and exposes the process as a constant struggle to satisfy conflicting legislative, representative, and oversight duties. In chapter 4, the Iraq War Resolution emerges as yet another example of legislators' granting large measures of authority to the executive branch, only to publicly criticize the president for using that power when the management of the war comes under fire. Farrier examines these shifts with a close account of public rhetoric used by members of Congress as they emphasize, in institutionally self-conscious terms, the difficulties of balancing their multiple roles.

Examining decades of power shifts and policy changes, Congressional Ambivalence offers a rare look at the causes and consequences of major imbalances in the separation of powers in American government. With a lucid account of complex institutional processes, Farrier exposes an alarming trend in the practice of democracy.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Jasmine Farrier builds on her earlier work to thoughtfully explore this fundamental issue: why do members of Congress seem uninterested or unable to protect their legislative powers? The result is not merely a weak Congress. In failing to defend their institutional interests, lawmakers undermine the system of checks and balances that helps safeguard individual rights and liberties and makes self-government possible."—Louis Fisher, author of Presidential War Power" —

"In this incisive and sophisticated work of scholarship, Farrier adds an important dimension to our understanding of the relationship between Congress and the presidency.... This insightful book should be read by anyone concerned with the current state of interbranch relations."—James Pfiffner, author of The Modern Presidency" —

"An important contribution both to the study of congressional politics and to our understanding of public policymaking.... It is an important book whose significance is likely to grow with time."—Lawrence Dodd, author of Congress and Policy Change" —

"The 'cycle of ambivalence' that Farrier describes in this book is as useful in understanding the process of congressional delegation as the 'capture' thesis was in understanding regulatory commissions.... Her theory is indispensable for understanding the congressional role in current policymaking."—Richard Pious, author of Why Presidents Fail: White House Decision Making from Eisenhower to Bush II" —

"Congressional Ambivalence presents an innovative perspective on Congress's delegation of authority, especially to the executive branch. In this important contribution to the literature on Congress and the separation of powers, Farrier offers clear evidence of a cycle of ambivalence with respect to congressional delegation and explores the causes and consequences of the cycle through rigorous analysis of public documents."—Daniel Palazzolo, coeditor of Election Reform: Politics and Policy" —

"Through a close analysis of the explanations members of Congress provide for delegating authority to the executive branch in three important areas of public policy, Farrier shows how members' ambivalence about the capacities of their own institution has undermined the institutional ambition required to sustain the proper constitutional role of legislative power."—Randall Strahan, author of Leading Representatives: The Agency of Leaders in the Politics of the U.S. House" —

"Unlike most studies of this subject, Farrier's rightly considers the ways changing political circumstances influence legislators' attitudes toward delegation."—Social & Behavioral Sciences" —

"Farrier examines the institutional and political causes and consequences of this cycle on case studies of five rounds of military base-closing commissions, three decades of fast track implementation processes, and post 9/11 legislation concerning intelligence policy and the Iraq War."—SciTech Book News" —

"Farrier... describes the way Congress vacillates between an assertion of power and abdication."—Political Bookworm" —

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813192628
  • Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
  • Publication date: 3/24/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Jasmine Farrier, associate professor of political science at the University of Louisville, is the author of Passing the Buck: Congress, the Budget, and Deficits. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

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Table of Contents

Introduction Congress and the Cycle of Ambivalence 1

1 Congressional Delegation of Power: Efficient Strategy or Existential Tragedy? 23

2 To Close or Not to Close, That Is the Question: BRAC, 1988-2005 45

3 A Freer Hand to Promote Free Trade: Fast Track from Nixon to G. W. Bush 81

4 Dramatic Circumstances, Dramatic Ambivalence Congress: Post-9/11 115

Conclusion The Rewards and Risks of Power Loss for Members and Institutional Balance 161

Notes 169

Selected Bibliography 191

Index 197

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