What Oath of Office?

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Congress swearing in-Mark Wilson.jpg
Every other January, members of Congress--all 435 in the House and newly-elected Senators--take an oath of office in which they swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Now it happens that defending the Constitution of the United States entails a fairly serious commitment because that document actually imposes a considerable amount of obligation. Unlike in a court of law, however, there is no actual punishment for swearing falsely when one takes such an oath; that is unfortunate because it is increasingly clear that a bunch of those folks who swear to meet their constitutional responsibilities have no intention of doing any such thing.

The most recent example of this abdication of duty is the enthusiasm, at least among some, to buy into the creation of an outside commission to recommend a national tax and spending policy. Such a commission might function in several ways, the most egregious of which--and one which is being considered--would be for the commission to be assured an up-or-down, non-amendable vote on its policy proposals, following the pattern established by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC).

BRAC has served a useful purpose in allowing the Congress to accept or reject, but not rewrite, comprehensive proposals for eliminating military facilities that have outlived their usefulness, thus getting around the pressure on individual legislators to fight for survival of facilities that provide employment for their constituents but otherwise unnecessarily drain federal resources. But determining tax and spending policy is a different matter altogether and, along with the war power, lie at the very heart of our constitutional system, which places the most important national powers in the hands of the peoples' representatives. These are the decision-making responsibilities for which the Congress exists.

Members of Congress, sadly, sometimes seem little interested in doing the hard stuff the Constitution requires of them. Long ago, the job of preparing a national budget was passed off to the White House, but the Congress insisted on making final decisions itself (although there remain many members who find it somehow outrageous when legislators--whose duty it is--attempt to reshape an Administration's spending proposals). Then, in the 1970s, the War Powers Act surrendered one of the Congress's primary obligations--to ensure that the nation would never go to war, sending its young men and women off to be killed in combat--unless the people themselves, through their representatives, decided that a proposed war was worth fighting. Now a President may initiate hostilities, leaving the Congress the unpalatable, and unrealistic option of cutting off support for the troops if it disapproves of the decision.

During Ronald Reagan's presidency, and that of George H. W. Bush, many members of Congress were eager to grant the White House a line-item veto, essentially surrendering spending decisions to the Executive. Many of the same members of Congress were equally eager to endorse term limits, which would have limited the Congress's ability to bring its own expertise in bear in the policymaking process. During George W. Bush's presidency, a Congress of his own party blithely went along with outrageous constitutional violations rather than exercising its duty to conduct oversight of the executive branch and to serve as a check on its excesses.

The Congress of the United States is the core of American democracy. We have no king, no prime minister, no parliamentary system in which the legislature is the "leader's" legislature." The central powers of our governmental system are placed in the Congress, whose members must come from the communities they represent and who must be regularly re-selected or replaced. It is a system that depends on robust debate and a close questioning of every proposal that would affect the lives and well-being of the millions of American men and women whose delegated authority the Congress wields. Designating federal programs to be created, eliminated, or reduced in size is the obligation of the men and women who took that oath of office soon after they were elected. Determining how much of every citizen's earnings to take for government purposes, and in what form, is likewise the duty of those men and women who on a January morning stand in the well of the House or Senate chamber and swear to take the burden of office and constitutional obligation upon themselves. This is not a buck to be passed; it is a duty to be met.

It is time for the Speaker of the House, the Majority leader of the Senate, and the minority leaders of both chambers to come together and declare that the Congress will hold the hearings, consider the bills, conduct the debates, evaluate the proposals, and make the decisions it was elected to make. Any member of Congress unwilling to meet the burdens of the job should step aside and make room for those who might, in taking an oath to defend the constitutional system, actually mean it.

Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images


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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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