Sunday, July 31, 2011

Decisions, Decisions

There’s an old joke that says that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Another says that the intelligence of any group can be determined by dividing the lowest IQ of any member by the number of members in the group. Both aphorisms are entirely validated by the United States Congress.

Much of the media is castigating the Tea Party for the current imbroglio, but I would point out that Democrats are now saying that Congress should just bail out of the process and let President Obama solve the problem by invoking the 14th Amendment to the constitution. They want to abdicate their financial responsibility in much the same way they have done with their responsibility for making decisions with respect to wars.

I have been critical of what I refer to as a lack of leadership on the part of Obama in his refusal to demand specific actions from Congress, but Alex Knapp at OTB points out that it really is not his responsibility to do that, that the failure here is in Congress and not Obama’s, and he makes some good points.

More and more, Congress has been willing to simply forego its role in making policy to the President. This trend has only been highlighted during the Obama Administration, because Obama, more than any President in recent memory, has been deferential to Congress’ role as policymaker. We saw that in the Health Care Bill and Stimulus Packages, and we’re seeing it now in the debt ceiling fiasco. The result is an almost desperate flailing by Congress to get the President to do something. That’s a bad thing for Constitutional governance.

That is actually a valid and pretty powerful point, I think. Obama, based on that viewpoint, is being more faithful to the constitution than most recent presidents, although many examples can be provided of ways in which he is most certainly not. The war in Libya comes to mind, for instance, and drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia, so the issue is certainly not a simple one.

Clearly, however, Congress is failing its responsibility and that is the point which Alex makes. I see the point and agree with it, but if they aren’t going to get the job done somebody has to. If the car isn’t starting it doesn’t make sense to just stand around wringing your hands, get a damned crank.

Why Congress is failing is probably not entirely simple, either, but my view would be that it has to do with reelection.

Consider the point that the Tea Party is basing its revolution upon, “spending cuts and no tax increases.” Their opponents have reframed this as “no tax increases on the rich,” making it an issue that polls as highly unpopular, and the Tea Party has not backed down. Many of them say, in fact, “I did not come to Washington to get reelected, I came here to change things.” It’s an interesting viewpoint, and certainly different than the equivocal statements of the career politicians.

I'm not crazy about the “spending cuts and no tax increases” thing, but I rather like the, “I did not come to Washington to get reelected.”

Indeed, what made negotiations for the Health Care Bill and Stimulus Packages so lengthy and laborious was 535 career politicians seeking benefit for their constituencies in the interests of their own reelections. Delay after delay was caused due to seeking the vote of one Senator or a handful of Representatives, and bargaining the contents of the bill to secure those few votes. It wasn’t about the legislation, it was about reelection in the upcoming election year.

Members of Congress are not going to stick their necks out and do anything that might jeopardize their reelection, so if they can palm the difficult decisions off on the president that makes life easier for them and, up to now at least, that has been working for them. Even with popularity ratings in the low teens, they have been getting reelected at a rate of 90% or so in most election years.

It’s not good for the nation, though. As Alex points out, “One of the reasons that Rome went from being a Republic to an Empire is that the Senate kept abrogating its authority to Caesar.” And we all know what happened to Rome.

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