Of Presidents and Derelicts

Barack Obama is no fan of the Constitution. He has been known to criticize it for its focus on limiting government, for telling governments what they can and cannot do. He prefers a Constitution that focuses more on telling governments what they should do, at least telling governments to do what he would like, including seeing to the “redistribution of wealth,” or what he calls elsewhere “redistributive change.”

Of course, that is a mischaracterization. Not a mischaracterization of Obama’s views but of what the Constitution says. It does limit government, but it also gives government specific responsibilities and the power to exercise those responsibilities. Article I, Section 8 provides a very clear list of the federal government’s duties. It is noteworthy that those enumerated responsibilities and powers are in the Article that establishes the Congress. The list includes such things as providing for the common defense, borrowing and paying government debts, regulating foreign and interstate commerce, establishing standards for weights and measures, and so forth.

There are plenty of other provisions that limit the powers of the government and how it operates. The Constitution is a balance of governmental duties within a structure intended carefully to limit the government. As a limited government our Republic has prospered. It has struggled either when its duties were neglected (as in the days of President Buchanan, who did nothing while he watched state after state rebel from the Union) or when the limitations have been eroded (as we have witnessed through much of the twentieth century and in the first 14 years of the twenty-first).

The President has specific powers and duties, too, nearly all of which are carefully linked with the role of the Congress. For example, while the President does not make the laws—Article I, Section 1 gives “All legislative Powers” exclusively to the Congress—the President is authorized to make proposals to Congress and has the authority to veto legislation (but not change it) that Congress has approved. Once an act of Congress becomes law, the President then has the explicit obligation to, “take Care that the Laws be fully executed” (Article II, Section 3).

Note the words, “fully executed”. The President takes an oath to fulfill those duties, and nowhere in oath or Constitution is the President authorized to execute the laws only as much as he likes or agrees with them. Once something has become a law, the President may not set aside this or that part of the law or decide that he will only enforce the law so far. His obligation is to take Care that the laws are fully executed.

Average Americans may not like this or that provision of law, but we are not at liberty to ignore any law that applies to us just because we do not like it. The President is not exempt from that common responsibility of all citizens, either. As the chief government executive, who sought to hold his high office of public responsibility, he is even more obligated not only to obey the laws but to execute them, fully. The President may not make the laws, he may not amend the laws, he may not change the laws, and he may not disregard the laws. His duty is to execute the laws, and when he does not he is derelict in his duties.

This is all in accordance with the important division of labor, the separation of powers that the Founders put into the very structure of the Constitution to combat the tendency of all humans to abuse power once it comes into their hands. By dividing the power of government among three separate but coequal branches, dividing legislative power even further between House and Senate, and yet again separating government power between federal and state governments, the Founders went to clear and elaborate lengths to create checks and balances.

Under the American system of government no branch, no person, no group of people in government, are to be able to do very much on their own without getting the other elements of government to go along. Where they are not able to agree, where there is no consensus, for the safety of our freedoms government is prevented by constitutional law from moving forward unless substantial consensus among the different branches can be reached. Those checks and balances again and again, throughout the more than two centuries of our Constitution, have forced the very human people in government to revisit their differences and come to terms with one another, however much they may disagree and be disagreeable. There is safety for you and me in that. And it helps keep our Union together, repeatedly forcing our leaders (and the parts of the nation that they represent and whose authority they exercise) to work with one another, like it or not.

Recently, President Obama has expressed impatience with the Constitution’s checks and balances. After all, he personally, in and of himself, embodies an entire branch of government. The other branches, Congress and the courts, have many different people with a messy variety of ideas. President Obama complains that Congress cannot decide what it wants to do as quickly as he can. In his view, why wait?

By design, Congress of course has something of a multiple personality. It is a gathering of elected representatives, reflecting the diversity of views among the people of the nation. Appropriately, it takes time to build a consensus that accommodates those views, as it should. But President Obama cannot wait. He sees the need to accommodate no ideas other than his own. He has decided that on this issue or that—today it is immigration laws—there is a limit, defined by himself, as to how much time Congress can take to consider things. When time is up, he, the executive branch, will take the matter into his own hands, and pretend to the authority to do it.

His tool of choice today is to abjure his duty to execute the laws fully and instead to execute them partially, just to the extent and manner that suit his own desires, as he engages in another round of redistributive change. That he is endeavoring to violate rather than execute our national, founding law, and his constitutional oath of office, apparently does not trouble him. It is the Constitution itself that troubles him.

But from where does he think he gets his authority to do anything. When he breaks the Constitution, does he not break his very authority to act in the office that the Constitution created?

Of Majorities and Modesty

Perhaps with some weeks enough dust has settled to allow a few reactions to the recent American elections, with more perspective than can be gathered from listening to reporters interviewing reporters. I will offer views that focus mostly on the results of the congressional elections, drawing upon experience from more than two decades of work in the Senate.

I do not, however, wish to minimize the importance of the elections for governors and state legislatures. In fact, I suspect that the next President of the United States will more than likely be a current or former governor than a Washington politico. Most Presidents, historically, have come from the state governments, which I find encouraging for our federal system. Moreover, judging from what we have seen, former Senators do not seem to make very good Presidents. I cannot name one to whom we can look with admiration for what he accomplished in the White House. There seems to be too much Washington blindness in them to govern effectively for our whole nation.

I am straying to an election yet to come, though. Back to this year’s results, I will begin with the view that we should expect, with the media-scorned Republicans holding the majority in both House and Senate, that the finger of blame for all problems—real or imagined—will be pointed at “Congress.” Disputes between legislative and executive branches will tend to be cast as exposing the nation to great danger as a result of congressional intransigence and/or “politics,” as if no real issues of policy—no questions of life, freedom, or wealth—are involved.

It is happening already. In one bizarre report I heard this week on a major network “news” report, some Amtrak railroad drawbridge in the northeast is over a hundred years old and prone to getting stuck when it opens to let ships pass. Amtrak wants a billion dollars or so to fix it, but, as the “news” story would have it, Republicans in the new Congress “are not looking for ways to spend money.” That was the story. Note the nothing new here. The bridge has been around for a hundred years and did not suddenly become prone to malfunction this November. But the election has now made it a story; a problem is arising, not because the President or the Democrats in Congress for several years did not seek to fix it, but because the new Republican majorities are not interested in spending money. The bridge is not the problem in the story, the Republicans are. Expect more of this kind of media “news.”

Second observation: in recent decades Congress has increasingly surrendered more and more authority to the executive branch, including to the regulatory agencies. The Senate, under the misleadership of Majority Leader Harry Read, has given up even more power and authority (perhaps in another post I will expound on lessons from the Senate of Rome, which by avoiding decisions paved the way for the Caesars—who were all too ready to make decisions). The Democrats retain full control of the executive branch. No small thing. In the remaining two years of the Obama Administration look for more aggressive activity from the White House and the regulators as they test just what they can try by regulation and regulatory fiat, without any detours to Capitol Hill. To quote Jacob Marley’s ghost, “Much!”

When it comes to big Republican plans to make major changes, the quidnuncs will be fed explanations of the thinness of the Republican majorities, along with the “responsibility” of Republicans to share power with Democrats that the Democrats failed to win at the ballot box. When it comes to work that needs to be done, the repeated common wisdom will be that the Republicans have the majority, so nothing should stop them from getting on with the job. There will be little mention that the President can veto what Congress passes, and that Democrats in the Senate will likely filibuster anything that the White House threatens to veto, saving the President the trouble—and political risk.

Yet, there are things that the Republicans, even with working but not overwhelming majorities in Congress, will be able to do. Most important, they get to set the agenda. They get to decide what issues will be debated, what hearings will be held, what will be put to a vote, even when they may not have the votes to break Democrat opposition in the Senate. It will be some relief that instead of the familiar series of proposals to curb liberties, raise taxes, or stifle economic growth and opportunity, the agenda will tend toward ideas of freedom and prosperity, though actual accomplishments will of necessity be modest against the strong opposition of the President and his media allies. I will take modest improvements over the calamitous policy fails of the past several years.

Of Closed Governments and Coming Together

Battered and bruised and stretched and torn, our Constitution still has life in it. One of its central principles is that no one person can do much by himself in Washington, for good or ill. We are watching that play out in this year’s appropriations process. We see that it is impossible for one man, the President, to make a new law. It is similarly impossible for one House of Congress, whether Senate or House of Representatives, to do so alone.

Under the Constitution, all appropriations bills must originate in the House of Representatives, where they are given their initial shape and substance. Next, the Senate must concur or amend. If the Senate chooses to amend, the bill goes back to the House, which can either agree to the Senate amendment, disagree, or disagree with a further amendment. If there is disagreement, representatives from House and Senate can meet to resolve those differences. If they do and succeed, then each House, first one and then the other, passes the bill, after which it is sent on to the President.

It is still not a new law. According to the Constitution, the President may not amend the bill that has passed both Houses of the Congress. He can choose to sign it, making it a law. It does not become a law unless he does. He can choose to veto it. In the latter case it goes back to the Congress, where it can only become law if both Houses override the President’s veto.

I lay this process out in some detail, because to listen to the institutional media and most of the pundits you might think that they have all forgotten, or never learned, how the constitutional process of making laws works. It is not an easy process. In fact it was meant to be difficult. Some seem to wish it were easy, at least for enacting the policies that they favor. They would wish to make one or more constitutional parties to law making redundant and of no separate account or purpose other than to do the will of their favorite other. They should, instead, take comfort that it is easier to defeat policies that they oppose.

The genius of the Constitution for making laws is that it requires three separate parties of people, sometimes with very different views, to come together to make anything a law. The Founders made it difficult because they were not very fond of new laws. They knew that an abundance of laws could mean a scarcity of freedom. And so it is today, but it has taken over 200 years to build up the awesome pile of laws that regulate so much of our lives, and yet it still is harder to make a new law than many would wish.

Our Constitution requires that a lot of people have to work together to make a new law. When they do not, nothing happens. That is why much of the federal government has run out of money and has “shut down.” A new law is needed to appropriate the money for these shuttered parts of the federal government to open.

They will continue to be without operating money until the elected representatives in the House and Senate and the President work together to make a new law. The Constitution forces them to work together. Nothing will happen until they do, whether that takes a day, a week, or longer. The Constitution requires sufficient cooperation for law making. For either House, or Senate, or President to be able to make laws without the other would impose the tyranny of one set of views over the rest. The Constitution will not allow that. The Constitution forces a meeting of the minds, either by persuasion or by compromise, or in practice some of both.

The Constitution is a beautiful thing. I rejoice in it. I can be patient for a while as it does its work and forces our elected leaders to come together. The issue is not keeping parks open. The issue is preserving our freedom and our society. The Constitution still has some power to do that.

(First published October 1, 2013)

Of Dysfunction and Governing the Nation

It seems that no more evidence is needed.  The establishment press, normally loathe to criticize the federal government, has at last become even fond of proclaiming that “Washington is dysfunctional,” although they do so as if announcing something worthy of being “news.”  The Senate has not passed a budget in some four years.  The House of Representatives regularly passes budgets that the Senate will not even consider.  The President—who has no budget-proposing role under the Constitution—proposes budgets that are routinely disregarded while declaring his intent to govern without the Congress.  At the same time, people feel more alienated from their government than ever before, in ever increasing numbers considering the nation headed in the wrong direction, regardless of the party in control of national policy.

In the most recent demonstration of the Washington breakdown, the Congress this year failed to pass the annual appropriations bills before the current ones expired.  Or, better said, the House passed appropriations bills, the Senate demurred, and the President announced that he would veto any appropriations legislation that offered either more or less than what he wanted.

The establishment press, amplifying executive branch efforts to promote panic and stampede the public, announced that “the government would shut down,” and yet 83% stayed open.  Some prominent public operations (that do not require any appropriations to operate) were closed at the President’s bidding, like the Lincoln Memorial and the various veterans and war memorials, but the President seemed to have enough money to travel to various campaign-style rallies to complain about the government shut down.  There was national confusion and consternation.

Perhaps what is news is that there is, at last, general agreement, and the President has helped demonstrate, that the federal government has become dysfunctional, by which we may mean, not doing what it needs to do.  I also notice that this condition has not been getting any better.  In addition to the recent, visible indicators, I would offer some longer-term measures.

Economic growth is depressed and has been declining for decades; employment is also down, with millions leaving the work force.  Government welfare rolls have expanded dramatically, suggesting that a very large portion of the population is either not able to take care of itself or has surrendered its responsibility to do so.  The federal balance sheet approaches ever closer to insolvency.  To avoid being gloomy and doomy, I will not recount dismal education trends, eroding family formation patterns, the precarious condition of national infrastructure, or our worsening international relations (with allies and opponents).

Yet, the federal bureaucracies are far larger, taxes—visible and hidden—are higher, red tape has become ubiquitous, and federal subsidies have fallen behind promises even as they outdistance the ability of the federal government to pay for them.  If government is the solution, then why is more government not making things better?

How could this happen?  Have we as a nation lost our ability to govern ourselves?  Have “partisan politics”—as though something new rather than part of our national intercourse since 1796—frozen the ability to consider, set, and follow national priorities?  Have the problems of modernity exceeded the ability of policymakers to resolve them?

A case could probably be made for each and all of the above explanations.  I think, however, that they are all symptoms of a more fundamental problem, one recognized long ago, at the founding of the nation.

As early as 1787 the Founders recognized that a central government would not work for the United States.  Even with just the original 13 states and 3 million people, the nation was too vast to be governed in detail from one capital.  That is why they created a federal system, under which the few, truly national concerns—such as national defense, trade, international relations, national standards of measures and sanctity of contracts, preservation of freedom and the rule of law, together with the means to fund these activities—would be handled by the national government.  All else was reserved to the States.

Note that I did not say given to the States.  Remember, the States and the people in them created the national government.  The States and the people in them gave to the national government its authority and power.

Today, the United States stretches across a continent and reaches to the isles of the sea, with over 300 million inhabitants.  It is even more impossible than ever to govern from a single capital, by a centralized government.  We all have seen the evidence, in addition to the growing dysfunction of Washington.  Everyday, people all over the nation struggle with rules made by the federal bureaucracies, rules that are often nonsensical where people live and work and play, rules governing the volume of water in our toilets, the content of our children’s food, the gasoline in our cars, the content of our communications, the form of our financial affairs, and many other elements of daily, personal life.  Even worse, they have become too vast and complex to be administered faithfully or complied with loyally. 

We could fault the executive branch bureaucrats who make them or the Congressmen and Senators who write the laws, but these people are no smarter or dumber than the rest of us, and just as well meaning.  They just have an impossible job.  No one can know enough to run so many things from Washington.

Consider the big issues that seem to have Washington all tied up in knots—in turn afflicting all the rest of us.  The new national healthcare systems are breaking down even as they get started.  National rules for farmers have Congress stuck over who should get subsidies and who should not.  National tax plans designed to take from some to give to others divide the people into winners and losers.  Environmental regulations impose costs on some in order to subsidize someone else.  National education programs follow each other in rapid succession, each with a new and high-sounding name, none of which do much to stem the continued decline in education.  And ever present with all of these national rules are unintended consequences that were not and probably could not be foreseen but which crush people’s businesses, destroy jobs, and disrupt lives.

These are all issues that the Founders never intended for the national government, issues that if governments should address at all should be left to State and local governments, where decisions can be made closer to the people who have to live with the results.

We have at hand a better, competent government, or at least its blueprint.  It is found in the structure of our Constitution that created a federal system.  Our Constitution is the recognition that only through a system that keeps governing as local as possible can a great nation exist in union and harmony.

What we are seeing play out before our very eyes is that our nation not only should not be governed by a central authority, but that it cannot be.  The sooner we recognize that and return to the federal plan of the Founders the happier, and the sooner Washington will be able to function as it should for the benefit of all rather than frustration for all.  The task is too big otherwise and doomed to failure.  It will not be a pleasant failure.

Of Global Poverty and Washington’s Struggles

It was tough getting out of Washington this evening.  You might suppose that with the partial shut down of the federal government, traffic in Washington would be on the light side.  I have not seen much evidence of it on the streets of the city or in the Washington suburbs.  I know that many, many people must be out of work, because the establishment media keep saying so, television and radio.

I do not refer, however, to experiencing the normal evening outbound Washington traffic.  Traffic was unusually heavy today, especially on 19th Street, N.W., south of Pennsylvania Avenue.  The world financial diplomats are back in town to attend fancy parties in the cause of poverty.  For several blocks the lanes were clogged, nose to tail, with their black limousines.  The global party goers gather in D.C. each October two out of every three years (they take one year off to congregate somewhere else for variety).  The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are holding their annual meetings as they have for going on 7 decades.

Inching along 19th Street, which is Main Street for the World Bank and the IMF (they have bought up nearly all of the Washington real estate between the White House complex and George Washington University), I was able to have a long, good study of a series of monster posters draping the north side of one of the World Bank office buildings, posters reaching no less than eight stories high, proclaiming the simple bold motto, “End Poverty.”  That is a good idea, probably the product of a high level committee of experts tasked with developing a theme for the Annual Meetings.  It conveys a sense of purpose, a reach for meaning.  The professional poverty bureaucrats have done little to end global poverty, but they have spent hundreds of billions of dollars to maintain it—at least judging by the results.

In all fairness, perhaps the annual World Bank/IMF festivities help to fight poverty in the Capital Region.  Washington, D.C., and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs are already thriving from the Administration’s economic stimulus program.  They have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, with the exception of the pockets where the energy fracking revolution is booming.  Nevertheless, at least for a while Washington is drawing money from the rest of the World as it does every day from the rest of the United States.

Focusing on ending poverty is a good idea, and there are ways to do it.  Undoubtedly, much of the discussion, however, in the IMF and World Bank meetings this week has focused on the budget and economic crisis in the United States.  “Dysfunctional” is surely a common word used in conversation by the visiting diplomats in the salons to describe the condition of the U.S. Government, since that is the label regularly applied by the establishment media talking heads, and it would resonate.  The vast majority of the financial officials attending come from nations where government is much more efficient.  Their economies may be dysfunctional, but their governments are models of efficiency.  What the big guy in the big office in the big house wants he gets.

The American system is a lot messier.  The big guy in the room without corners in the big White House does not seem to be getting what he wants, at least not since the 2010 election.  After that election that put a majority of opposition Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, and reelected them in 2012, he has declared his intention to govern without Congress.

The last couple of weeks have brought home to the President that he cannot quite do without Congress.  Congress still has some role, albeit one greatly diminished from that extended to it by the Constitution.  It turns out that the “government shutdown” actually has shut down no more than 17% of Federal Government operations; 83% continues to pump along spending money with no attention by Congress needed.

The chief executive is trying to magnify that 17% by making its absence as painful as possible, the rest of us the insect absorbing the sun’s rays under the focus of the glass in the President’s hand.  The executive hope is that public pressure will force the Congress to surrender what remains of its authority and agree to whatever the President demands, backing away from asserting any policy role of its own.  Just give the President a clean bill to keep doing what he has been doing, and move along.

Congress is not making that easy, passing bill after bill to open or ameliorate this or that hardship.  The President has rejected nearly every effort.  Of course, that is odd if you buy the rhetoric from the White House that the Congress has taken hostages.  Working with that metaphor, I know of no hostage examples where anyone having the interests of the hostages at heart would object to release of any one of them.  Who would send the released hostages back to their captors and say, “we will receive no freed hostages until you free them all”?  Yet that is the White House position.  Who is hurt by that?

You would not hear such questioning from the establishment media.  They are doing their best to hide the fact that what we are experiencing is a constitutional crisis, a battle that our Founders anticipated, which is why they created a structure of shared power that requires cooperation of all branches and domination by none.  The media are happy demeaning the struggle as a sporting event with winners and losers, and time clocks, and sports commentators, and favorite teams.

They miss the central point.  We cannot suffer to have any team “win”, and we are not spectators at a stadium.  Our freedom is at stake.  The design of the Constitution is that there can be little governing without all three branches being involved, the whole nation and its many parts represented.  Today we are engaged in a great struggle testing whether that structure of government, limited to prevent tyranny by either the President, the Congress, or the Courts, can endure.  So far it has.  The partial government shut down is the evidence.  Were that to end by either one branch or the other capitulating—rather than House, Senate, and President coming together—it is our freedom that would suffer.  There would remain much less check on the arbitrary and capricious actions of the victor.

Many of the elite financial diplomats at the World Bank/IMF meetings would understand that result and feel right at home.  American government, for 200 years a mystery to the rest of the world, would then become much more understandable and familiar to them.