I was going to write about the hilarious irony of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ International Union complaining about Obamacare, which, it has recently discovered, will cost its members a boodle of money due to the new law’s requirements that health insurance policies cover children under 26 years old, accept people with pre-existing conditions and eliminate annual and lifetime limits on coverage. Who would have thought that paying for more procedures, for more people over a longer period of time, would be more expensive? Shocking. Not to mention jobs lost as employers cut hours and positions in a scramble to avoid huge health care payouts.
When I stopped laughing, I decided to write instead about the current hue-and-cry over a “dysfunctional Washington” and a “do-nothing Congress.” This is something we’re going to hear a lot in the next 18 months, so we better think carefully about these nonsensical yawps.
Criticism of Congress (actually of the House of Representatives) for inaction are aimed at two groups of Americans: the foolish and the uninformed. Contrary to this familiar refrain of the left, Congress is doing what it was designed to do: act as a brake on impetuous actions of the executive branch; investigate malfeasance; and protect us from executive overreach and tendencies to authoritarianism.
These were very real concerns to the Founders; they recognized that any form of government, no matter how hopeful, had the potential for tyranny. As James Madison succinctly stated in Federalist #51: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Today’s political problems — and overheated rhetoric about Congress’ “lack of action” — rise from a conflict of goals. The Obama administration is eagerly pursuing the first part of Madison’s “great difficulty:” control. The president wants unquestioned authority to implement his wishes, and evidently isn’t squeamish about how he gets it. Use of federal agencies to punish political enemies and reward supporters has become commonplace. Reporters who ask too many inconvenient questions are covertly watched and wiretapped, together with their families. Administration officials engage in misdirection worthy of The Amazing Kreskin; misinformation, phony outrage and bouts of intimidation abound. Richard Nixon or Barack Obama, these are actions of the kind of leaders our Founders rightly worried about.
To achieve the second part of Madison’s equation, the Founders applied the theoretical constructs of Baron Montesquieu, constructing a federal government composed of divided, co-equal and competitive branches. With a few exceptions this system has worked extraordinarily well over two centuries. The president proposes, cajoles, prods and uses the “bully pulpit.” Congress deliberates, reworks, compromises and uses the power of the purse. Policies move forward when they have been thoroughly vetted, and gain the approval of a large majority of Congress. Vicious or loopy proposals generally get sidetracked, although occasional instances of mass hysteria and one-party rule may allow bad ideas to sneak through. Think Japanese internment, the Patriot Act or Obamacare.
So Congress is performing to perfection the role for which it was designed. In response the president, thwarted in his desire to implement the Liberal fever-dream of an America perpetually regulated and controlled to ensure “fairness” based on undefined criteria devised by anonymous scolds and the professionally aggrieved, offers petulance and tantrums, and uses the apparatus of government against political foes. Somewhere in the White House, “enemies lists” are being reviewed and updated.
But the president’s game seems to be wearing thin. Questions in Congress are becoming more pointed, and at least some elements of the press appear to be having second thoughts about their role as the president’s cheerleaders. When most major news organizations invited by the attorney general to an “off the record” session on Department of Justice surveillance of U.S. journalists decline the summons, Mr. Holder has a serious problem. When the IRS bureaucrat responsible for the office targeting more than 400 conservative organizations (no liberal groups were questioned) pleads the Fifth in a congressional hearing and then goes to ground, no amount of assertion that “there’s nothing to see here” will avail, nor will protest that “Congress is being distracted” serve. At long last, it may be dawning on even the most politically disconnected and inert that Congress is, in fact, doing its job — and that this Administration has some serious explaining to do.
Whether it will or not is another question. The political calculation may be that with three years left there may yet be enough blind support to allow great mischief, even without congressional help — so full speed ahead and the public be damned. Unless the public slams on the brakes. Hard.
Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column for the Summit Daily News.