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Congress' Labor Daze

[ Posted Monday, September 2nd, 2013 – 15:39 PDT ]

President Obama, it seems, has confounded congressional Republicans by giving them exactly what they asked for, on the subject of Syria. "Consult Congress!" they bellowed last week, full of constitutional righteousness. "OK, let's have a vote," Obama responded. Now the cry, from at least one, is "Obama is hiding behind Congress!"

Sigh. Seems like they're against whatever Obama's for, but that's not exactly a new thing, is it?

To be fair, the Syria issue is not a cut-and-dried partisan thing, so giving in to the snarky urge in that first paragraph is not totally justified. There are anti-war Democrats, there are pro-war Democrats, and there are Republicans equally all over the map on the issue. So it's really a problem with Congress as a whole rather than just one party. Also, that's not even what I wanted to talk about this Labor Day, so let's just start over, shall we?

 

Congress -- even in a good year -- barely works. That can be taken (equally correctly) either as "barely functions" or "barely ever shows up for work." In a pathetically-unproductive year (this Congress is on track to be the least productive Congress since records were kept), this should already have become painfully obvious to all.

Consider the fact that the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom, as late as last Thursday, had not only convinced itself exactly how we were going to strike Syria, but also when we were going to attack (the consensus: Obama had to strike before he flies off to St. Petersburg for an international meeting). As happens with regularity, the inside-the-Beltway consensus was wrong. President Obama didn't get their memo, or something.

But rather than discussing the pros and cons of striking Syria today, we have to point out something which should be glaringly obvious even inside the Beltway, but will likely get short shrift -- namely, that Congress will be continuing their fifth week of vacation rather than returning to Washington to vote on whether America should go to war or not.

As you can see, we'll have an entire week or more to discuss the morality and realpolitik of striking Syria, because no vote will happen before -- at the earliest -- next Monday. Because, once again, Congress needs a fifth week of vacation before they drag their mostly-useless carcasses back to Washington to attempt to do the nation's business. Even when that business is deciding the question of war.

If Congress were capable of acting quickly in an emergency [pause for riotous laughter], they would have all flown back to D.C. in the middle of last week, held a hasty vote on whether to strike Syria or not, and then they would have been able to fly back out of town to still enjoy their fifth week of vacation this week. Don't believe it? The British managed to do exactly that (Parliament was likewise on vacation).

Some might point out that things didn't turn out so well in Britain, despite their speed. Parliament, after all, voted down the Prime Minister's request for war authorization -- the first time they've done so in something like two centuries. So maybe having to cut their vacations short annoyed members of David Cameron's party so much that they handed him a political loss in retaliation. I can easily see -- easily -- members of the United States Congress acting in such a petulant fashion, so perhaps Obama was right not to call them back to work.

But still, it's going to be hard for the media to ignore the intervening week between Obama announcing he wants a vote in Congress and Congress actually being in town to hold such a vote. Perhaps the media will also notice that, for the months of August and September, Congress has scheduled exactly nine days in session. That's not even two full work weeks, out of two whole months of time. And that, my friends, is nothing short of pathetic.

Consider what is on their plate, in this time period, in addition to deciding the monumental question of war: the entire federal budget. The Senate has passed a budget, the House has passed a budget, and yet no compromise is even currently being worked on to reconcile the two into the individual appropriations bills which must be passed by the first of October, or the federal government shuts down. House Republicans couldn't even agree among themselves over a farm bill, before they all fled the city for their five-week vacation. Congress will be forced to fall back on the gigantic lie of "there just isn't time" and pass some sort of omnibus continuing resolution, and punt the ball down the road for a few months. There may be an enormous fight over Obamacare during this process. Immediately following will come the deadline of the debt ceiling, in mid-October. Cue up more dysfunction and "round two" of the Obamacare funding fight. This will all guarantee another round of fiscal bickering, probably to coincide with the end of the calendar year.

Also to be pushed aside during September will be the huge battle over immigration reform. There just "won't be time" to have this important debate in the House, I confidently predict. This really isn't going out on a limb, because House Republicans have been trying the Big Stall on immigration all year long. "We won't pass the Senate bill, even though it probably has enough votes in the House to pass," say the Republicans, "because we're going to come up with our own bills instead." Which have not, as yet, appeared. Because, you know, "there just wasn't time."

A quick constitutional review: two of the bedrock duties Congress is charged with are passing an annual federal budget and deciding whether America goes to war or not. Congress has largely abdicated the war responsibility to the White House since roughly World War II, but this has never stopped them from demanding to be involved in the process. President Obama surprised them by agreeing, on Syria. Congress shrugged, and said: "We'll think about it in ten days or so... now how about another round of Mai Tais, everyone?!?" The budget deadlines are written in stone, so there's simply no excuse for not scheduling enough time for debating the issues, but Congress will only be in session a pathetic nine days this month, after taking all of last month off.

This will never become a big issue inside the Beltway until it becomes a big issue outside the Beltway. Until "We The People" demand more of our elected officials, it is never going to happen. A populist backlash can indeed work, as it did in the 1980s and 1990s over the subject of congressional pay raises. When people get angry, Congress eventually notices. Or they get voted out in favor of people who do notice.

But for people to get angry, they have to notice how seldom Congress actually shows up to work. Which is why it's a good subject for Labor Day. On this single day off for the American worker, perhaps the media will begin to point out (and continue to do so, over the next week) that Congress can't even be bothered to cut their five-week vacation short when America is contemplating an act of war. Congress won't be voting on Syria until (at the earliest) next Monday. There is absolutely no reason for this delay other than "I'd like one more week of relaxing on a beach and/or fundraising before I have to do my actual job." After the war vote (no matter which way it goes), we will then be told that "there just isn't time" to finish the federal budget before October begins.

Well, you know what? That's nonsense. There is, indeed, plenty of time. There has always been enough time. It's not the time factor, it is how you choose to use the time. Which is why I decided to work on Labor Day myself -- to point out what should be painfully and shockingly obvious, even to people inside the Beltway. Nine days' work for a period of two months is simply not acceptable. It wouldn't even be acceptable if we weren't contemplating a war, or even if Congress had already completely wrapped up this year's budget. There are a lot of things Congress should be working on this month, and nine days falls laughably short of the effort required to address these issues.

But remember, nothing will ever change unless people get upset about this sorry state of affairs and demand better from their civil servants. The only way Congress will ever change is through heaping all the shame upon them that they truly deserve. Whenever congressional leadership pleads: "There just isn't time," they need to hear the forceful response of: "There is time! How about earning your pay, for once? Nine working days is not enough! Get to work, you slackers!"

Happy Labor Day, everyone.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

16 Comments on “Congress' Labor Daze”

  1. [1] 
    LewDan wrote:

    CW,

    Congress has no role in deciding whether we go to war. The role of Congress is to decide whether we declare war. The former is an operational military decision (the President's) the latter is a purely political decision (Congress'.) It isn't that Congress has abdicated their responsibility since WWII its that the conflicts we've been involved in didn't politically require declarations of war. We've, supposedly, fought against aggression, against insurgents, to support our allies, to support the UN... We haven't fought to defeat another sovereign nation over a territorial dispute, (either us seizing theirs or us preventing them from seizing ours,) which is what "declarations of war" are almost universally about. Basically, instead of us "declaring war" we've used UN or treaty "authorization" or else acted "covertly." (Declaring war and lying about it.)

    Its no doubt in part the expectation that Congress would often not be in session that led to the President being empowered Commander in Chief. (And also because the Founders were too smart to put a committee, especially Congress! which is inefficient by design, in charge of fighting with peoples lives, and perhaps, even, national security, on the line!) We don't need Congress to authorize military action, to fight, they're only needed if there's some political advantage to "declaring war." The Constitution wisely vests just one person, the President, with the authority to deal with the things that might be urgent, and Congress with the stuff that won't be urgent.

    Not that I'm disagreeing with you! I just find it hard to work up any enthusiasm for criticizing Congress taking time off and doing nothing, given the disasters that almost universally result from Congress actually doing something!

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    LewDan -

    While I hear your point, the reality is that Congress and the executive branch have struggled over this divide for a long, long time. Look up the "Fortifications Bill" from Andrew Jackson's time... here's what I have from my own manuscript:

    "Congressional gridlock and polarization were just as bad for Andrew Jackson as they are today. Even an imminent war with France wasn’t enough to break through such extreme partisanship. Instead of voting on a bill appropriating money to defend the country, Congress adjourned for a long recess and went home. Luckily, France did not attack. But Jackson’s supporters in Congress called the action nothing short of treasonous: “There are men who would willingly see the banner of France waving over your Capitol, rather than lose an opportunity to make a thrust at the Administration.” The failure of this Fortifications Bill set off a “blame game” which lasted almost an entire year. Both parties labored mightily to lay all blame for the bill’s failure at the feet of the opposition. Jackson himself joined in this partisan finger-pointing, in his Annual Message to Congress. The issues change, but the gridlock does not."

    [Historical Note: "Annual Message to Congress" = today's "State of the Union" speech]

    Jackson's political enemies voted down war funding solely to give Jackson a political defeat. Jackson couldn't order the US prepare defenses because Congress wouldn't approve the money (we had no "standing army" at the time...).

    While you make a good argument, I would disagree on Afghanistan. That wasn't about territory, any more than the WWII declaration of war on Japan was. They attacked us, we declared war. Simple as that. Of course, with Afghanistan, it actually wasn't that simple, but there was no question of territory, you have to admit.

    The War Powers Act of (?) 1973 has never been challenged in court. Until it is, we have nothing more than "tradition" to guide both the president and the Congress on these matters.

    I do have a question for you, though: do you ever think the US will formally declare war ever again? I have no real answer to that one, myself.

    -CW

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    The British managed to do exactly that (Parliament was likewise on vacation).

    To be fair, Britain is.. what?? The size of Illinois??

    The Senate has passed a budget,

    For the first time in 5 years....

    But remember, nothing will ever change unless people get upset about this sorry state of affairs and demand better from their civil servants.

    Funny.. That's what I have been telling ya'all for the last 8 years!! :D

    As far as Syria goes, I said my piece yesterday.. I am sure I'll have more to say tomorrow. :D

  4. [4] 
    LewDan wrote:

    CW,

    Responses to attacks against are always "about territory"-- there about keeping it. The 911 attack denied us the Twin Towers, not just property, but "territory."

    War wasn't declared in Afghanistan because there was no political need, and war declarations are about politics. We expected to show up and roll right over Afghanistan. It would be a done deal before anyone could raise a stink. And we'd been attacked. Domestic opinion was unanimous, since we were attacked. We we're angry. We'd have loved for someone else to volunteer to also become a target my complaining! Not surprisingly there we're no takers! So we weren't the least concerned about plying nice or political sensibilities, we we're spoiling for a fight! and didn't even bother declaring war.

    The real issue is that with missiles that can reach any point on the globe in minutes, and weapons that could destroy all life, no one may live long enough to "declare war" in an unlimited conflict. But I think declaring war will always have a place as a non-military weapon. Its just that the world's a lot smaller now. We tend not to "declare war" individually so much any more, as collectively, through "resolutions" of the UN and regional alliances.

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Responses to attacks against are always "about territory"-- there about keeping it. The 911 attack denied us the Twin Towers, not just property, but "territory."

    Not true..

    We still had the territory... 9/11 didn't deny us the territory..

    It simply made the territory no longer productive in the manner it was prior to 9/11..

    But the territory itself was never in any danger of being lost to the US...

    One could even argue that the territory became productive in another way...

    As the impetus to take a stand against terrorism...

  6. [6] 
    LewDan wrote:

    Michale,

    Not true. The 9/11 terrorists permanently denied us the territory we had constructed vertically on the site of the World Trade Center. And they temporarily denied us the use of the territory that was the site, until clean-up and reconstruction could be affected. We still had physical possession but we obviously were unable to do what we wanted with it, which was to site the Twin Towers there, because we had been denied control long enough to prevent us.

  7. [7] 
    LewDan wrote:

    Okay, Michale, Chris, you've tickled the bear, so this is son, Lew, On War.

    Strategically wars are always about acquiring control of territory, if not possession. Tactically war is usually about simply denying territory to the enemy, as in the control and or use of, if not actual possession, at least temporarily. Because if you seize possession of territory you must garrison it to defend and retain it. and troops are a finite resource. So normally you simply deny the enemy their ability to defend and control territory until they decide the effort is too difficult and expensive and simply give up., ie. surrender. (unless of course, you've the ability to simply annihilate them.) Then you can seize and control it. If we shoot down a fighter jet it isn't to deny the enemy fighter jets. Or even to deny the enemy that particular fighter jet. Its to deny them fighter jets in that particular territory at that particular time. The attack on the Pentagon wasn't to deny us military command, commanders, or the building, it was to deny us that territory as a military command post, at least temporarily. Even Troy wasn't about Helen. It was about control of the territory in which Helen sought sanctuary, so Helen could be got to!

    About the only time warfare isn't about territory is when warfare is strictly anti-personnel. Attacking a bunker, gun emplacement, troop positions, or military base are all about denying control and use of territory. It isn't really the thing we're attacking we've a problem with. Its where its at, and that its there now that's the issue. Sniping the commander, however, is anti-personnel, not about territory.

    Which is probably why people have difficulty with drone attacks. It seems counter-intuitive that people who don't blink at sending in thousands of armed troops to kill any and all opposition balk over sending a drone to kill one particular enemy. While they may not be able to articulate it they probably recognize a difference between warring over territory and just killing people. Even though the substantive difference is territorial wars are much worse! Territorial wars just seem more impersonal, more "objective," and less dangerous on principle. They aren't, of course, but emotionally they are. So when you're not warring over territory it just doesn't feel like war.

    The Japanese, BTW, attacked Pearl to deny us our territory that was the south Pacific naval base and to terrorize us by demonstrating the ability to deny us American territory at will. (They also hoped to destroy the American territory consisting of the "floating islands" we use to base combat aircraft in order to extend American territorial control.) 911 was much the same. We defend our territory by punishing anyone who tries any such thing--with extreme prejudice! Like Afghanistan. And that is my totally unsolicited 2-cents worth!

  8. [8] 
    LewDan wrote:

    CW,

    Oh, and Chris, please, I'd take it as a personal favor if you could avoid putting Andy into my head!! I can go all day without that! Nearly any President can be forgiven their transgressions as being just a product of their times. But Andy--just strikes me as a thug. I suspect he'd have been much happier as head-of-state if he were a Lord with the power of high and low justice. As an American President though, removing inconvenient people by simply having them killed is unforgivable. There are some people, like Hitler, for whom "the times they live in" just isn't excuse enough! IMHO he simply chose to "be evil."

  9. [9] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Population-wise, the UK is the size of our two biggest states combined (roughly) -- California and Texas. Physically, it's smallish, but then Brits are fully capable of taking a short flight to many sunny Mediterranean vacation spots.

    As for the bigger argument over territory, what springs to mind is the adage that any political boundary on a map between countries is usually where the two armies were so exhausted that they stopped fighting. That doesn't really add much to the conversation, I realize, but I had to just throw it out there.

    As for Andy, well, it was really Congress that was the point, there. I was shocked to read about the Fortifications Bill, personally, as it is a clear example of politics being more important than national defense. I had never heard about it before reading up on the Jackson period.

    -CW

  10. [10] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    LewDan,

    Seems to me like you are expanding the definition of territory from a fairly straight forward military concept into an all encompassing word that covers much more than is useful. The attack on Pearl Harbor to deny the US "territory", meaning the loss of military assets is just too abstract to really do it justice. Japanese aggression during WW2 was about territory but not ours. They attacked Pearl Harbor to prevent us from preventing them taking territory that was mostly not ours in the first place...

  11. [11] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    There was an interesting article a few days ago that is lost in the depths of my browsing history (otherwise I would post the link). It listed all the conflicts that had an official declaration of war and a list of all the conflicts in which congress was consulted and passed some resolution authorizing it. Just about every major military engagement the US has been in was covered. A few were missing, the big one being Korea. It was mentioned that we did not really need congress for Korea as they had de facto authorized it through the process of creating/joining the UN.

    I think it is good that Obama is giving the decision to attack Syria to congress. IMO it is as the constitution intended. If congress slaps the idea down and Obama embarrassed by it, it was still the right decision.

  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:

    LD,

    Not true. The 9/11 terrorists permanently denied us the territory we had constructed vertically on the site of the World Trade Center. And they temporarily denied us the use of the territory that was the site, until clean-up and reconstruction could be affected. We still had physical possession but we obviously were unable to do what we wanted with it, which was to site the Twin Towers there, because we had been denied control long enough to prevent us.

    I see this as an exercise in semantics.. For example, an foreign embassy is considered "territory" of the country it represents. Now, the interesting question would be, if the building was destroyed, would the land still be the "territory" of the country that originally possessed the building??

    Yes, we were denied the use of the vertical territory that was the World Trade Center.

    But, the more common definition of "territory" vis a vis warfare is land. Real estate...

    The Japanese, BTW, attacked Pearl to deny us our territory that was the south Pacific naval base and to terrorize us by demonstrating the ability to deny us American territory at will. (They also hoped to destroy the American territory consisting of the "floating islands" we use to base combat aircraft in order to extend American territorial control.)

    The attack on Pearl Harbor was more of an attempt to deny the USA the use of the asset that was the Pacific Fleet. The Fleet was a threat to Japan's expansion plans... True, the secondary objective was to deny us the use of a deep water port in the Pacific, but the primary goal was to destroy an asset, not to destroy territory.

    CW,

    Population-wise, the UK is the size of our two biggest states combined (roughly) -- California and Texas. Physically, it's smallish, but then Brits are fully capable of taking a short flight to many sunny Mediterranean vacation spots.

    That's my point.. It's easier to get Parliament back in session when everyone is less than a couple hours drive away..

    Granted, that doesn't take into account the out of country people but, by and large, CongressCritters here in the US don't leave the country en masse during their recess..

    Bashi,

    Seems to me like you are expanding the definition of territory from a fairly straight forward military concept into an all encompassing word that covers much more than is useful. The attack on Pearl Harbor to deny the US "territory", meaning the loss of military assets is just too abstract to really do it justice. Japanese aggression during WW2 was about territory but not ours. They attacked Pearl Harbor to prevent us from preventing them taking territory that was mostly not ours in the first place...

    Yea! :D

    I think it is good that Obama is giving the decision to attack Syria to congress.

    The decision has been in waiting since Assad first used CWMDs on his people back in March.

    The result??

    Over 1500 more people killed by CWMDs...

    Assad has absolutely NO reason to STOP using CWMDs on his people...

    Obama is simply going to debate the issue to death and not really make an effort to stop the attacks..

    I always have to sadly laugh when I read all the statements from the likes of Kerry et al saying, "The world will look upon the US as fickle and unable to influence anything if we let this attack go without response"...

    Buddy, that ship has sailed.. The US has already let the attack go without response...

  13. [13] 
    Michale wrote:

    I also find it interesting that, back in the Bush years, President Bush wanted to really put the screws to Assad for various nefarious deeds including increasing ties with Hamas and Hezbollah, having a hand in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and facilitating travel of Al Qaeda thru Syria..

    However, those on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, most notably Obama, Biden, Kerry and Hagel praised Assad as a reformer and opposed any attempts by Bush to hold Assad accountable for his actions..

    How embarrassing, eh?? :^/

  14. [14] 
    Michale wrote:

    “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
    -President Obama, Aug 2012

    "First of all, I didn't set a red line,"
    -President Obama, Sep 2013

    Let the back-pedaling begin!!

  15. [15] 
    LewDan wrote:

    Okay, you all seem insistent that territory is real estate. Unfortunately only real estate is real estate. Territory is those lines on a map where exhausted armies gave it up. (I like that CW! Summarizes my position rather well.) When we declare a foreign no-fly zone we are exerting territorial control over airspace that is not in our physical possession or within our national territorial boundaries. We're simply redrawing those lines on a map. Its the purpose of military tactics to locally redraw the lines on a map. But you only get to redraw them if you can control the territory you claim. You must posses the ability to do with it what you will. Which is why foreign embassies are our territory. And also why some mobile equipment, such as aircraft carriers and space platforms, are also territory, because they allow us control over their location. Real estate is irrelevant. Territory is not defined by what's in your possession. What's in your possession is defined by whether its your territory.--Which is entirely dependent on your ability to exert control over it. Which is why when you lose control, even briefly, you've lost territory as well, for the duration of that loss of control.

  16. [16] 
    LewDan wrote:

    CW,

    Let me add that I hadn't heard of the Fortifications Bill either. And I appreciate the reference, since I find it particularly on point as an example of the wisdom in placing military control exclusively under our administrative branch instead jointly with the legislative branch.

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