On the final day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Elizabeth Willing Powel, hostess of one of Philadelphia’s best-known political salons and wife of the city’s mayor, eagerly approached Benjamin Franklin on the steps of Independence Hall. “What do we have,” she asked him, “a republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin famously replied, “A republic — if you can keep it.”

“We as a nation are at a critical juncture, where substantive action is needed if we are to keep the democratic republic the framers envisioned,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, in testifying before Congress on March 3. “The fact that you are convening this hearing is proof that you also recognize that.”

Belmonte, a noted political historian, was one of four panelists testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Rules during a hearing on what it called the encroachment of the executive branch on the powers of the legislative branch.

The Congressional committee hearing, Article I: Constitutional Perspectives on the Responsibility and Authority of the Legislative Branch, sought to identify bipartisan solutions for reasserting the constitutional authority of the legislative branch, particularly over matters such as national emergencies, foreign policy, and government funding.

Belmonte provided perspective as a scholar who has studied the history of the United States — particularly the history of U.S. foreign relations — for more than 30 years.

“While the political landscape is bleak,” Belmonte noted in written testimony submitted in advance of the session, “Congress has the power to restore the separation of powers and, by extension, to break the gridlock that has eroded popular support for Congress and faith in our system of government.”

During the live committee hearing, Belmonte pointed out that the present imbalance between the executive and legislative branches is the result of a decades-long shift rather than a recent turn of events.

“The United States has one of the most brilliantly conceived and enduring frameworks of government in the history of the world,” she said. “The Constitution’s articulation of separate powers for the three branches of government is the very essence of that system, a reflection of the framers’ fears of concentrated power.”

Belmonte is the author of “Selling the American Way: U.S. Propaganda and the Cold War” and numerous articles on cultural diplomacy. Her most recent book, “The International LGBT Rights Movement: A History,” will be published by Bloomsbury later this year.

Belmonte served on the national council of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and the editorial board of its official journal, Diplomatic History. From 2009 to 2019, she served on the U.S. Department of State’s Advisory Committee for Historical Diplomatic Documentation, a group that participates in ongoing debates over transparency and declassification and the intersections between historical events and contemporary diplomacy.

Laura Belmonte testifies before the U.S. House Committee on Rules.
Laura Belmonte testifies before the U.S. House Committee on Rules. Erin Williams for Virginia Tech
Laura Belmonte seems a bit relieved after the four-hour Congressional hearing ends.
Laura Belmonte prepares to leave the Capitol Building after the four-hour Congressional hearing ends. Erin Williams for Virginia Tech
Laura Belmonte pauses in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. following her testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Rules.
Laura Belmonte pauses in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., following her testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Rules. Erin Williams for Virginia Tech