Earlier this month, Speaker Paul Ryan told what was, in theory, a joke. "Every morning I wake up in my office and I scroll through Twitter to see which tweets I will have to pretend I didn't see later on," he said at the Al Smith Charity Dinner, to appreciative chuckles.
Monday, however, was a reminder that Ryan wasn't kidding. Appearing on WTAQ, a Wisconsin radio station, he was asked what he thought of the indictments Robert Mueller had issued. "I really don't have anything to add other than nothing is going to derail what we're doing in Congress," he said, and he really didn't. Come Monday night, there was nothing on Ryan's web site addressing Mueller's indictments. There was, however, a post summing up his busy month, which was cheekily titled "Not Another Tax Reform Post" and included photographs of Ryan signing bills, handing out medals, and meeting interns.
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But it's not just Ryan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was yet more silent; unlike Ryan, he didn't even make himself available enough to have to dodge any questions. The top story on his website on Monday night — I am not making this up — was "McConnell on IRS Targeting During Obama Administration." There was no mention of Mueller whatsoever.
Imagine, for a moment, that the president in question was not Donald Trump but Hillary Clinton — that it was her campaign chair who had been indicted, that it was her foreign policy adviser who had revealed that he knew of Russia's stolen email cache in advance. Does anyone believe Ryan and McConnell would be so reticent then?
Ryan and McConnell would have you believe they are mounting a courageous defense of Congress's priorities in the face of Trump and the media's distractions — indeed, Ryan framed his comments around precisely that excuse, promising that nothing would "derail what we're doing in Congress."
But these near-daily acts of cowardice and silence are an abdication of Congress's role, not an affirmation of it. The Founding Fathers carried a mistrust of the popular will; they understood full well that the American people might, at some point, elect a demagogue or a knave to the White House, and so they built countervailing institutions capable of binding an errant executive. Congress wasn't meant to ignore a rogue, lawless, or indisciplined White House — it was meant to overwhelm it, to contain it.
"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," wrote James Madison in Federalist 51. "A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."
Congress is one of those auxiliary precautions. Ambition was meant to counteract ambition. And Congress's ambition, when combined with its power, was expected to be particularly potent — perhaps overwhelming. "As the weight of the legislative authority requires that it should be thus divided, the weakness of the executive may require, on the other hand, that it should be fortified," worried Madison.