There’s outrage among Democrats and probably smirking satisfaction among Republicans about Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation to have Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak to a joint session of Congress. While I like respect for both Boehner (who someday will be remembered only by congressional historians as a rather inept Speaker incapable of managing his own caucus) and Netanyahu (who’s fought valiantly against any prospect of peace with Palestine), I applaud the invitation.
It’s true that the President is the country’s chief foreign policy leader and spokesperson. It’s true that having foreign leaders address a joint session of Congress is rare, perhaps unprecedented.* It’s true that this invitation is largely a partisan act. But I set all that aside in favor of this one point: Over the past century the Presidency has grown too powerful, Congress too weak, and we need to reverse that trend if we’re going to preserve the republic.
Congress needs to act like its own institution more often, rather than simply taking its lead from the executive. That’s obviously a lot easier to do when partisanship is involved–when Republicans want to embarrass a Democratic president or vice versa. But each such act is a small precedent, a reassertion of congressional independence, a reminder that constitutionally it is Congress that is supposed to direct the President, rather than the other way around.
*The terminology is important here. Normally the chambers of Congress officially recess for these events and convene as a “joint Meeting,” not officially in session. Quite a few foreign leaders, from Hawai’ian King Kalakaua to, most recently, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko have addressed joint Meetings of Congress. But it appears that only twice has a foreign dignitary addressed a joint Session of Congress, and both times it was an ambassador, rather than a country’s Chief Executive. So if Netanyahu speaks to an official joint Session, it may in fact be a first.