Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Further Empowering the Most Powerful Man on the Planet

Over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Jamelle has an idea to "address long term challenges" through "meaningful legislation": fundamentally change the structure of Congress so that it's "more responsive." To wit:

Accountability is nice, but absent further institutional reform, it still leaves you with that basic problem (albeit slightly reduced). Better would be to reduce or eliminate some of those barriers, as to make better legislation possible in the first place. A system where committees are weaker, majorities are stronger and obstructionism harder is a system that incentivizes better legislation, as each member knows that their bill can make it to the floor in more or less its original state. It’s a system where there are fewer opportunities for capture by special or parochial interests, and it’s a system that actually empowers presidents to pursue their agendas.
(Emphasis mine.)

Jamelle starts off his post saying that the conventional wisdom among Lefty bloggers is that Congress is "broken" and thus needs fixing so that the president can get his important agenda through past all those darned obstructionists.

First of all, it isn't the job of Congress to enable the president to do anything. In fact, bold, lame, or otherwise bland legislative agendas are, indeed, the sole prerogative of the, er, legislature. The very first legally binding part of the Constitution reads:

Article 1 Section 1. All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.
Not most. Not some. Not 'all but those the president or the party of greater assumed moral right feel necessary.' All. This isn't some obscure, buried clause of ambiguous meaning where intelligent people can differ. This is the first word of the first line of law that establishes our current form of government.

And it isn't that I'm naive as to 'how government really works.' Nor would I even imply that extra-constitutional power grabs are the exclusive domain of one party. Indeed, I oppose the expansion of executive power because of the fact that presidents of any party seek to enlarge their power--and whatever power you give to one president, you give to his opponents who will, eventually, succeed him.

The naivete, I would argue, is in the assumption that these heightened powers would always be used for good, or even assumed that they would be used for good on net. Despite the disarray of the current GOP, the notion of a permanent Democratic majority is just as fanciful as the permanent Republican majority imagined in the early Bush (43) years. Political tides change and, invariably, the party in the White House changes also. I can't imagine Jamelle or Yglesias or any number of Lefty bloggers arguing for this power four years ago. The reason for that is, of course, their compatriots would have looked at them as if they were mentally defective to argue to give W. more power. Yet, for some reason, there is a consensus among these same folks that we do exactly that today as if a Republican will never come back into office.

Whatever power you give the guy you agree with, by way of our precedent-based system of laws, you give them to your political adversaries. Furthermore, the precedent given is not only that of the explicit power granted, but the power to expand the limits of power generally. Thus, by saying this or that constitutional limit doesn't apply because you have compelling reasons, any other constitutional limit is therefore vulnerable to the same argument, rendering the Constitution itself moot.

You would think that adherents to the party that has one--ONE!!--president elected twice since FDR (who governed much like a Republican after the first two years) would be wary about vesting too much power in the presidency. But, ah, how short-term our memories are when your guy (or gal, I suppose) gets in power.

A Republican case in point: Yoo'll never guess who lamented the extra-constitutional executive powers of the Clinton administration:
"President Clinton has exercised the powers of the imperial presidency to the upmost ... [and] undermine[d] notions of democratic accountability and respect for the rule of law ... ."
Of course, this is from the same man who would write this with a straight face, just two years later, what later became known as a "Torture Memo":
“our Office [of Legal Counsel] recently concluded that the Fourth Amendment had no application to domestic military operations.” (Emphasis in original)
Even if one was so naive to think that every president from their party was a politician with the heart of gold and the wherewithal (i.e., superhuman knowledge) to effectively implement the "meaningful legislation" Jamelle et al. would like pass, such contortions of our rule of law leads to the unraveling of our most fundamental protections against state encroachment. This isn't some reductio ad absurdum argument: this is a playing out of rights preferences of one political party over the other. One party is marginally better on property rights, the other on civil liberties--or at least, they pretend to be. But if you grant one of them the power to run roughshod over the rights and liberties they find less compelling, you grant the other side the very same. Such actions, by either party, are inimical to individual liberty.

Because of, not in spite of, Congress's numerous abrogations of its Constitutional duty to act as a check on the Executive and punting its prerogative to declare war by writing Bush a blank check on the Iraq invasion, we're facing many of the problems the so-called "Progressives" have been complaining about for years. And it's not all the Republicans fault: one only has to look to the recent half-assed "debate" on PATRIOT Act reforms and State's Secrets protections sought by the current administration to show that civil liberties and transparency aren't much more popular at either end Pennsylvania than they were last year.

Nevertheless, the "Progressive" idea is to further empower the most powerful man on the planet to charge headlong into some new foray of ill-conceived and expensive adventure in the name of what's best. How this ever got the label of "progress" is fully beyond me.

Congress wasn't meant to work efficiently. (and thank Madison for that!) The fact the president can't just come up with an idea and make it so is the essence and beauty of deliberative democracy, not some sort of calamity.

In the future, as a practical matter, the next time Jamelle et al. want to give Obama more power, perhaps they should stop and think, "What would W. do with it?"

UPDATE: It should be noted that weeks ago, I happened upon a blog entry Yglesias wrote in 2005 arguing for the rejection of the filibuster. I never changed the post to reflect that, and since have. 10 points for consistency, but still 0 points for efficacy.

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