contributor perspectives

May 4, 2016 | 08:00 GMT

6 mins read

Giving Congress Its Due

Board of Contributors
Philip Bobbitt
Board of Contributors
The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
(MARK WILSON/Getty Images)
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

Although the presidency is the focal point for media coverage of the U.S. government, Congress is by far the most important and most powerful of our constitutional institutions. All taxing and spending bills must originate in the House of Representatives; only Congress can raise armies; and it is Congress that creates the Federal Reserve, which governs U.S. monetary policy. Besides its trivial function as a trial court, the Supreme Court would have little function and would hear no appeals from the state supreme courts, nor would there be any federal lower courts, except for congressional legislation. For all the glamour of the White House, it's Capitol Hill that creates and sustains the federal government.

Therefore, it is dispiriting that the new Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has been unable to rally the House Republican Conference to support the passage of a federal budget, the most important responsibility the House has. Nor has the speaker been able to respond to various emergencies — the Puerto Rico debt crisis, the health emergency arising from public water contamination in Flint, Michigan, the urgent need to meet the threat of a Zika epidemic — to say nothing of the larger issues before the country's leaders, such as immigration reform, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, specific authorization for warfare against the Islamic State, criminal justice reform and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Nor is the Senate providing a more edifying scene: There, the majority leader refuses even to dare to hold hearings on the nomination of a supremely qualified jurist, Merrick Garland, to a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. One consequence of continuing this vacancy is that an appeal from a federal circuit court striking down the efforts of President Barack Obama's administration to compensate for its failure to win immigration legislation will now in all likelihood be overturned on procedural grounds rather than affirm such a significant holding by 4-to-4 deadlock.

The late Peter Gomes, for many years the chaplain at Harvard, once asked, "If every society gets the government it deserves, what have we done? And can we repent of it?"

Leaving Adolescence Behind

There are many reasons why the United States has been called the "spoiled child of the Western world," but one of them arises from the fact that our society actually exalts the truculent attitude toward government that is characteristic of adolescents toward their beleaguered elders. Foreign Policy magazine, a rightly respected journal, ran a feature claiming to disclose the "top 20 bloviations, lies and just plain dumb lines from U.S. government officials" this year, in which public servants are ridiculed for having the effrontery to disagree with the author's preferred policies. (A congressman saying that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq was a mistake, an assistant secretary of state stating that an unfettered Iranian nuclear arsenal might someday pose a threat to the very survival of Israel or even the United States, the president reaffirming the idea that the United States is "indispensable" to successful collective action, and so on.)

Another characteristic of youth is its healthy disdain for paying the bills. "Free university tuition for all" sounds pretty attractive, except possibly for those families who are struggling to pay their taxes and whose children qualify for financial aid now. "Let the rich pay for it," sounds even better, except perhaps to those whose jobs depend upon private investment or to whom it comes as a surprise that "the rich" includes quite a number of middle-class Americans if the government's new expenses are significant enough. Apparently no amount of scorn from virtually every professional economist has been sufficient to disillusion the youthful supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders. That suggests something more than serious thought is being given to his program, or rather that his real program is not the flimsy policies he proposes — including repealing Obamacare in an attempt to get a single-payer system for universal health care. This would be a legislative achievement I doubt even the greatest parliamentarians could pull off in an evenly divided Congress, which by the way (does anyone care?) is not the reputation Sanders enjoys among his colleagues in the Senate. His real program is simply opposition to the status quo, which is defined as that conspiracy of institutions that has thwarted his plans for bringing democratic socialism to the United States since he was a student activist.

And yet another trait we associate with ambitious youth is a certain irreverence for experience. Is it simply a coincidence that the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency would be, if elected, the first president never to have spent a single hour in public service? I doubt even Obama, a supremely gifted and cerebral leader, does not regret the fact that he had so little experience in Congress when he was sent to the White House. In fact, a case can be made that the gridlock of the last few years has persuaded some that legislative competence is irrelevant, and thus that we are on the verge of seeing a Donald Trump candidacy because Trump is the anti-Obama, bombastic, ill-mannered and whenever possible bullying in a way that must thrill teenagers or their older equivalents.

What we need from the young is not advice but hope. They embody hope, which Dr. Johnson said was "the chief blessing of man." But what parent today would encourage his or her child to seek a career in politics or to become a "bureaucrat?" We profess great admiration for the members of the military, so great that they sometimes blush with embarrassment, but how many of those delivering these compliments actually want a son or daughter to go to West Point rather than Stanford's business school?

The distinguished constitutional scholar Jed Rubenfeld put it this way:

"Our politics grows ever more insipid as it grows ever more attentive to what we want, or say we want, here and now. We have today a productive capacity enabling us to realize our dreams to an extent beyond the wildest dreams of those who lived before us — if only we had dreams!"

Philip Bobbitt is a leading constitutional theorist whose interests include international security and the history of military strategy. He currently serves on the faculties of Columbia Law School and the University of Texas, where he is the Herbert Wechsler Professor of Jurisprudence, and Distinguished Senior Lecturer, respectively. He has published eight books. His bestsellers include The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (2002) and Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century (2008). His most recent book is The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made (2014).

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