Constitutionalism in Congress

I agree with George that constitutionalism has eroded in Congress in addition to the presidency. That seems most evident when Congress sues the executive branch, thereby asking the courts to confront the bully on the block as opposed to flexing its own institutional muscle. It is also evident in the House’s decision to attempt to extort Mike Pence into invoking the 25th Amendment before exercising the impeachment power. The threat there seems to be: Do your job or we’ll do ours. Setting aside whether the 25th Amendment is an appropriate solution for the current crisis, impeachment has the advantage of not requiring a middleman.

But I am more reluctant to apply George’s framework to judicial confirmations. I agree that Senate Republicans who confirmed Amy Coney Barrett after denying a hearing to Merrick Garland are guilty of hypocrisy. I do not think it is constitutional hypocrisy. The Senate’s power to advise and consent is substantive, not pro forma, which means it can decline a hearing to a nominee for reasons of its choosing. The mistake Senate Republicans made in the Garland nomination was concocting a standard (no Supreme Court confirmations in the year of a presidential election) to cover a simple political decision. The political decision was prudentially debatable but constitutionally defensible.

The false need for a standard reflects our fear of politics, which is to say our fear of judgment: Elected officials would rather a faux standard make a decision than be accountable for it themselves. The failure to apply that standard in the Barrett nomination was hypocritical. But I see no constitutional problem with the Senate either denying Garland or confirming Barrett, and I am hesitant to calcify political choices into constitutional precedents. If anything, the only clear constitutional standard is that presidents and senators exercise the full powers of their offices for the full duration of their terms.

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