September 28, 2023

As the Republicans in the House of Representatives organize to wield majority power beginning in 2023, and pledge to investigate various aspects of the Biden administration, their members should read James Burnham’s 1959 classic Congress and the American Tradition, which contains one of the best explanations of Congress’ key role in ensuring political equilibrium in our constitutional republic.

Congress and the American Tradition was Burnham’s application of ideas and concepts he first developed in The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians to the unique system of government framed by our Founders. It is informed by an understanding of what James Madison meant when he said, “If men were angels no government would be necessary,” and Madison’s proffered dilemma: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Burnham noted that in theory the notion of obligating government to control itself was impossible, but only became possible as a result of “social experience acting through time” — what Burnham called “tradition.” He explained this as follows:

Pure reason could not guarantee a good government, strong, just and free. But reasonable men, drawing on the wisdom of the past shaped institutions as well as principles, and relying on the future interplay between individuals and their inheritance of tradition, might devise and orienting directive which would itself become an essential, even critical, part of the living tradition.

At the core of America’s constitutional and political tradition are checks and balances, the diffusion of power, and divided government — all traditions that are meant to protect citizens’ liberty from the over-concentration of political power. And Burnham’s study of the Founders revealed that they believed Congress played the key role in upholding the delicate constitutional equilibrium established in Philadelphia in 1787.

Burnham worried that what he called “democratism” threatened to undermine the structure of liberty created by the Founders. Democratism, he wrote, is an appealing ideology whose proponents purport to govern according to the “will of the people,” which they believe empowers them to overlook or overcome constitutional restrictions that stand in the way of fulfilling the people’s will. Burnham knew that this phenomenon was largely confined to the executive branch of government, but he warned that the legislative and judicial branches were not immune to its temptations.

House Republicans have already announced their intention to launch a series of investigations of the Biden administration, just as Democrats in the House did with the Trump administration. Burnham in Congress and the American Tradition wrote about the importance of the “investigatory power” of Congress and provided an extensive history of legislative assemblies exercising such power in England, the American colonies, and in the United States. It is a history lesson that members of Congress of both parties should read.

Burnham called Congress’ investigatory power “an extraordinary power, liable to abuse.” It is a legislative power, but it also has quasi-judicial and quasi-administrative aspects. Congress’ investigatory power has four main legitimate purposes:

  • to gather information bearing on the enactment, amendment or repeal of laws;
  • to check the consequences on the public weal of laws previously enacted;
  • to check the performance of the executive and the bureaucracy in administering the laws;
  • to check how public moneys lawfully appropriated are actually being spent.

Burnham recognized, however, that the investigatory power can be and has been abused for partisan political purposes, used to promote legislators’ political ambitions and careers, and deployed as a weapon against political opponents.

Long before liberal political scientist and Kennedy court historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote a book about the “imperial presidency” (written, unsurprisingly, when Nixon was president), Burnham warned about the growth of unchecked presidential power and the need for Congress to reassert its preeminent place in our constitutional system. House Republicans will soon be positioned to use the investigatory power in an effort to uncover alleged misdeeds, to provide for transparency of executive and administrative practices, and to determine the best legislative means to check and balance the exercise of presidential power. (READ MORE: Now the Real Work — the Hard Work — Begins for the GOP House)

The temptation will be for House Republicans to “get revenge” against their political opponents who they believe have abused power during the previous two years. And we can expect the mainstream media to decry future House investigations of the Biden administration as “partisan witch hunts,” even as they continue to champion all such investigations of Trump and his supporters.

Learning from Burnham’s Congress and the American Tradition. House Republicans should remember this wise counsel: “Certainly government by investigation is not government, but government without investigation might easily turn out to be democratic government no longer.”