One interesting aspect of the recent government bailouts has been the complete irrelevance of Congress. The operation and decision-making seems to be run almost entirely by the Secretary of Treasury and Federal Reserve. Congress appears to lack the ability, the will, and the decisiveness to play any role except spectator, as a handful of senior executive branch officials have nationalized major portions of Wall Street.
What is further interesting is that Congress is not missed in the slightest. No one is clamoring for a greater role for our elected representatives in dealing with these problems. I haven't heard anyone saying, "We really need to get Congress more involved in this. They'll know what to do."
The other day, I offered my view that Congress today is fundamentally a silly place stocked with silly people. This latest situation illustrates the principle. I don't know whether Paulson and Bernanke are doing the right thing (I tend to think not). But I know for certain that I'd rather that they be making these decisions than Congress.
Moreover, this problem has become systemic. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that the current Congress has enacted less legislation than any Congress in recent history--and that includes its many symbolic pieces of legislation such as renaming Post Offices. The output of administrative agencies dwarfs that of Congress. The Senate's behavior on judicial nominations is preposterous.
I sense a vicious cycle at work here. As Congress has become more dysfunctional and unable to address matters of public importance, the Executive Branch has stepped in to fill the gap. In turn, this allows Congress to behave in an even less-serious manner, which in turn necessitates further action by the Executive Branch. If the Executive waited for Congress to do anything, nothing would get done. So Congress essentially spends its time bloviating and posturing, while the unelected beavers in the bowels of the bureaucracy crank out federal regulations.
Put more generally, Congress's ridiculousness has increasingly caused it to forfeit its status a co-equal branch of government. 40 or 50 years ago it might have been plausible to imagine Congress addressing important public policy issues like entitlement reform or health care reform (I'm not saying they would have done it, but it seems like it was more plausible then). Serious people were in the Senate then--Taft, Johnson, etc. Today, however, the idea that serious solutions to pressing social problems might originate in Congress is hard to suggest with a straight face.
In the abstract, I am no fan of the administrative state and see the theoretical value of political accountability. But if I have to choose who I'd trust to deal with the big decisions, it is hard to make the case that Congress as it actually exists is who we want in charge. Over the past few years, the Executive and Courts have increasingly filled the gap that they perceive as existing because of Congress's incompetence. One would like to say that if the Executive or Judiciary won't step in Congress will step up. But that doesn't seem like a realistic scenario to me. It is a vicious cycle and it is hard to see how that cycle can be broken.
But I'm sure that there will be much ballyhooed Congressional hearings in a few months to "get to the bottom of this." Congress's last effort on this was Sarbanes-Oxley, and a lot of good that seemed to do (see Larry Ribstein).
As I said last week, John McCain has seemed to remain a serious person despite his service in the Senate, not because of it. And that it is not clear on Barack Obama. On Joe Biden it seems reasonably obvious that he long ago succumbed to Senator-itis. I think that this latest episode, and Congress's irrelevance in it, nicely illustrates my points.