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Congressional Ambivalence

The Political Burdens of Constitutional Authority

Jasmine Farrier

Publication Year: 2010

Is the United States Congress dead, alive, or trapped in a moribund cycle? When confronted with controversial policy issues, members of Congress struggle to satisfy conflicting legislative, representative, and oversight duties. These competing goals, along with the pressure to satisfy local constituents, cause members of Congress to routinely cede power on a variety of policies, express regret over their loss of control, and later return to the habit of delegating their power. This pattern of institutional ambivalence undermines conventional wisdom about congressional party resurgence, the power of oversight, and the return of the so-called imperial presidency. In Congressional Ambivalence, Jasmine Farrier examines Congress’s frequent delegation of power by analyzing 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 affects numerous facets of the legislative process. Explaining specific instances of post-delegation disorder, including Congress’s use of new bills, obstruction, public criticism, and oversight to salvage its lost power, Farrier exposes the tensions surrounding Congress’s roles in recent hot-button issues such as base-closing commissions, presidential trade promotion authority, and responses to the attacks of September 11. She also examines shifting public rhetoric used by members of Congress as they emphasize, in institutionally self-conscious terms, the difficulties of balancing their multiple roles. With a deep understanding of the inner workings of the federal government, Farrier illuminates a developing trend in the practice of democracy.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front Cover

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Title Page

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pp. iii


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pp. iv


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pp. v


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

This book is a sibling to Passing the Buck: Congress, the Budget, and Deficits (2004). In May 2001, as a dissertation fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, I presented a paper on the curious institutional and political history of the line-item veto movement. At that moment, however, deficits and budget reform were...

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pp. 1-21

Congress does not have a clear and consistent place in the separation of powers system. Sometimes members describe their own institution as having a pathological inability to deal with an important national issue and opt to suppress normal legislative processes and/or delegate power to another institution. At other times, members say that they regret their...

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1: Congressional Delegation of Power

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pp. 23-43

Has Congress permanently lost its institutional place in the modern administrative state, or does it veer between purposeful moments of activity and hibernation? This question is important because the American version of representative democracy was not designed to be dominated by one branch on any policy subject for long periods of time...

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2: To Close or Not to Close,That Is the Question

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pp. 45-80

This chapter offers a new perspective on the twenty-year history of the base realignment and closure (BRAC) process. Though the rationale and mechanics of the process have been examined well by others, the complex before-and-after life of this series of delegation decisions deserves deeper attention. Using primarily public legislative history surrounding all fi ve rounds, I argue that BRAC shows Congress’s cycle of institutional...

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3: A Freer Hand to Promote Free Trade

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pp. 81-113

The evolution of international trade policy over the course of the twentieth century in the United States provides insight into the domestic politics of globalization, touching parties, interest groups, regions, and the separation of powers. This chapter will focus on the thirty-year history of fast-track congressional floor processes as a lens through which...

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4: Dramatic Circumstances, Dramatic Ambivalence

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pp. 115-160

While the USA PATRIOT Act and the Iraq War resolution emerged at a unique moment in American history, their background and aftermath follow the cycle of ambivalence pattern. As the previous chapters on base-closing commissions and fast-track trade processes show, the House and the Senate have long struggled with their roles as national...

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pp. 161-168

In recent decades, under different partisan regimes, Congress has delegated numerous powers and pared back its own prerogatives on policies spanning trade, base closings, war, and intelligence gathering. While not looking much like the institutional ambition assumed by James Madison, as articulated in the Federalist No. 51, a vote for delegation may make...


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pp. 169-190

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 191-196


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pp. 197-211

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813173764
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813192628

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2010