Republicans, after their comprehensive defeat on November 6, have been going through an identity crisis.  Defeated Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown said, “We need to be a larger tent party.”  A Republican aide adds, “We need candidates who are capable of articulating their policy positions without alienating massive voting blocs.”  The Economist advised that, if the Republicans ever expected to win, they had to become “younger and browner.”  The New York Times, on November 7, editorialized that Republicans should embrace new values if they want to avoid self-destruction and be left with a “shrinking loaf of Wonder Bread.”  The tendency of any mainstream party, of course, is to become more liberal as it reaches out for new votes.  So the likelihood is the Republicans will adopt the values of various Democratic voting blocs.

The people have given Republicans the power to control the government today.  Control of the House of Representatives gives them the power of the purse.  Why won’t the Republicans take what the people have given them and run with it?  Because they are hopeless.

The question for conservatives, however, is whether this is a good time to leave the failed party.  The Republican Party, in a country generally considered center-right, has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.  Not one of their candidates could reasonably be called conservative.  It could not even bring down a badly wounded president.  Thirty-five percent of the electorate describe themselves as conservative.  Only 25 percent identify themselves as liberal, but they always win.  The Democrats are better at their business.  Surely, it is time for conservatives to hit the road.

Would a new conservative party be a permanent minority party?  Not necessarily.  Instead, it seems conservatives are able, on their own, to control the House.  And, if you read the Constitution, you’d rather control the House than the presidency.  Only the House has the power to raise and spend money.  The money power, which Parliament seized from the king in the 17th century, controls all other powers.  ObamaCare, if the House wills it, is history.  The Constitution places this ultimate power in the House because, as Jefferson said, it is the branch closest to the people.

The Constitution grants the president the “executive power.”  He shall be the commander in chief and can grant pardons.  With the advice and consent of the Senate, he can make treaties, appoint ambassadors, judges, and other officers.  His powers, however, are limited.  Congress is granted the power to declare war, raise an army, provide and maintain a navy, provide for calling out the militia, suppress insurrection, and repel invasion.  And, of course, Congress is given the money power—to borrow, tax, and spend.  Modern practice, however, has created the Imperial Presidency, with full foreign-policy power, including the power to carry on war.  The modern practice, though, is based on Congress’s wish to avoid controversial decisions.  If a war goes bad, it is the president’s responsibility—no one would blame the Congress.

The Constitution grants Congress the essential republican powers—raising and spending money, war-making, and impeachment.  The president’s powers depend on Congress’s purse strings—the budget for his office depends on Congress.  Today’s House, instead of exercising its power, is satisfied with stalemate: It is unwilling to exercise the power to defund government operations.

The Supreme Court’s power also depends on Congress.  The Founding Fathers provided Congress with almost complete control over federal judicial power.  Article III of the Constitution vests the judicial power in one supreme court and “such inferior courts as the Congress may ordain and establish.”  In other words, the existence of lower federal courts (district and circuit) is discretionary with Congress.  The Constitution gives the Supreme Court a narrow “original” jurisdiction: suits involving ambassadors and those in which a state is a party.  It gives Congress the unlimited authority to regulate the “appellate” jurisdiction of the Court—that is, the power to hear cases from lower federal and state courts.  The Court can only hear what Congress authorizes it to hear.  Article III, in short, grants Congress the power to reduce the Court to insignificance, dealing with ambassadors’ parking tickets and cases in which a state is a party.

The Constitution gives these powers to Congress, but Congress prefers not to exercise them.  The Framers believed that the nature of power is to expand, which is why they designed a system of countervailing powers.  Only power, they thought, could limit power.  They did not foresee that the modern Congress would benefit by giving power away.  Controversial issues, of necessity, create voter anger.  Congress gives the Court the power to decide volatile hot-button issues.  Congress gives the president complete power over foreign affairs.  It allows him to proceed without a declaration of war.  When he leads the country into disaster—Vietnam, Iraq—the blame is on him, not the Congress.  Indeed, Congress is so risk-averse that it allows the president the astounding power to kill anyone, anytime, anywhere.  Congress, under the current arrangement, cedes traditionally legislative matters to the Court and the president.

Congress giving away its essential powers seems counterintuitive.  History provides hardly any examples (since King Lear’s mistake) of individuals or institutions voluntarily surrendering power.  The underlying logic is related to self-preservation; by avoiding controversy, Congress better assures its own re-election.

Woodrow Wilson, in 1888, wrote Congressional Government, which described a system, based on the Constitution, of congressional supremacy: “The natural, the inevitable tendency of every system of self-government like our own and the British is to exalt the representative body, the people’s parliament, to a position of absolute supremacy.”  Congress is, “unquestionably, the predominant and controlling force, the centre and source of all motive and of all regulative power.”  Wilson was right about the supremacy of Congress.  What he missed—as did the Framers—was that Congress would one day use its power to avoid its constitutional responsibilities.  Congress has all the constitutional power it could wish for; the only question is whether it has the will to exercise that power.

The Tea Party serves as a model for the exercise of power.  In 2011, the Tea Party, with only 60 or so members of the House, successfully disrupted the budget process to bring its agenda of shrinking the federal government to the forefront of political discussion.  Whatever your opinion of the Tea Party, it was an effective use of power, and it reminded everyone of the power of the purse.  Imagine if one of the current parties (or a third party), instead of spending nearly a billion dollars to promote a candidate nobody wants or believes in, was to focus its resources on getting control of Congress.

It is certainly time for Congress to return to its constitutional duties.  And it looks as if conservatives, if they leave the Stupid Party, can control it.