In Support of a Functioning Congress

A common criticism of President Obama from the conservatives is that he acts extra-Constitutionally.

  • The decision not to deport refugees.
  • The decision to delay implementation of some of the ACA provisions.
  • The agreement with Iran over nuclear weapons.

In the Constitution there are two branches of government which are meant to balance each other: Congress and the Presidency. The judiciary forms a third branch, but it’s main check on the other two branches is the power to declare acts or laws unconstitutional. But this power is not granted to the judiciary in the Constitution. It is assumed only through the power of precedence from Marbury vs. Madison. Consequently, the primary check on the power of the Presidency was always meant to be Congress.

So how is Congress doing these days?

One of the main controls Congress has is the purse. In the Watergate era the Congress wrested the power of the budget from the Presidency. Before that Congress would authorize certain expenditures but the Presidency had a lot of leeway to run the Treasury at its own discretion. Taking control of this represented a significant limitation on Presidential power.

The problem is that with power comes responsibility, and Congress has not dealt well with actually assuming responsibility for the budget. In lean times budget authority means cuts in spending. Since 99% of federal spending ends up in some American’s pocket, that means cutting spending will always piss someone off and lose you votes. In an environment with biannual elections and no term limits, this will never happen. The result has been a refusal to even pass budgets for the last couple of decades. There are almost yearly continuing resolutions or at best an omnibus bill that has not been reviewed by anyone passed in a flurry of activity before some deadline such as defaulting on the debt.

The only tactic that has gotten any traction is the idea of ‘starving the beast’. Sounds awesome. There will be heroes and victories and … No, there will only be villains. Starving the beast involves not collecting taxes. The federal government is a huge employer of primarily Americans doing jobs that Americans have said they want done, such as monitoring borders, safeguarding food, building roads, etc. Not collecting taxes is the same as a business saying they’ll stay open, but they’ll stop collecting on accounts receivable. After all, they’re spending their customers’ money and that’s just not right. If that sounds stupid, there’s a reason.

Taxes are freedom.

Many times the choice is phrased as paying taxes or not paying taxes. Sometimes that is the choice. But often it is not. The true choice is often between taxes or regulation. Politicians don’t wake up in the morning and think about ways to abuse the public. They are self interested, but they are also working on projects that their constituents have said are important. A lot of the time that means changing how some part of the economy works. The two tools the politician has to effect these sorts of changes are regulation and taxes, and one of them will occur. Regulation normally comes from the executive, the Presidency. It is non-representative and it restricts your liberty by telling you what to do. Regulation sucks. Many times the best alternative is taxation. Taxation is normally done by Congress, so it is representative, and it simply alters the cost of something. It gives you the choice of paying the higher price or acting differently. Thus ‘starving the beast’ does little more than cede control to the Presidency while also promoting regulation.

Compromise is control.

Recently Congress has also become more polarized, with powerful factions voicing their refusal to compromise, ostensibly based on principle. The US is a diverse country in people and places, and the Congress reflects that diversity. The Constitution was designed that way. It can actually help to think of the Congress as a market. How does a price get set in a market? It is a balance between opposing forces of supply and demand. Similarly the Congress is a balance of the political demands of the nation. A refusal to compromise is no different than a consumer demanding below market prices or a producer demanding above market prices. The market only functions if they meet in the middle. And the country only functions if Congress is able to reach compromises. If a market stops, nobody makes money. If the Congress stops, then the Presidency is unconstrained.

There is also an apocalyptic tinge to the discussions in Congress. Disaster is just around the corner. It will be the end of the country. We’ll lose everyone’s respect. And so on. The problem is that it almost never happens. This would make these sorts of discussions simply amusements, but sounding a prophecy of doom can make the prophesyer decide that he has an interest in making that doom occur. The best example is the flirtation with defaulting on the federal debt for purely artificial reasons. Thus prophesies of doom can become cover for actions which are not in the public interest and could be viewed as treasonous.

For the last two decades, the culpability for Congressional failure falls squarely on the Republicans. They have controlled Congress for the last 22 years with only short periods of Democratic resurgence that were no longer than a single election cycle. The form of their failure has taken several forms.

  • Groups within the party: the Tea Party refusal to compromise.
  • Policies within the party: the Hastert rule which cedes control to a minority within the Republican party.
  • Control of Congress: as they have been the ones in control, they bear the blame.

Would things have been different with a Democratic Congress? Possibly not, but we’ll never know. People bear responsibility for the actions they take, not the ones they might have taken.

So here are a few tips on who to avoid when voting for Congress:

  • If the person says they will never raise taxes, they are a moron. Don’t vote for them.
  • If the person says they will stick to their guns and not compromise, they are a moron. Don’t vote for them.
  • If they keep saying how the country is going down the drain, they are a moron. Don’t vote for them.

(P.S. I know. I know. This should have been published before the election. Sorry.)

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