Congress: Missing in Action

Congress' silent acquiescence to President Obama's authorization of force in Libya highlights a growing problem for American constitutional government


House Speakers come and go, but the last several have had one important thing in common: they haven't understood the important duties they assumed on accepting the position. Dennis Hastert, who was Speaker during most of George W. Bush's presidency, thought of himself primarily as the President's floor leader, essentially a member of the White House staff. Nancy Pelosi, who succeeded Hastert when Democrats took control of the House, thought of herself primarily as the leader of the Democratic Party -- her job, she said, was to elect more Democrats -- until Barack Obama was elected President; then, with Obama having assumed the role of the party's most prominent spokesman, she saw herself as the legislative leader of the party and champion of its partisan agenda. John Boehner, less grandly, sees it as his principal job to make the House work more openly and more efficiently. Not one of the three has understood the constitutional responsibilities of the Congress -- the key to the American system of self-government -- or their obligation to ensure that those important obligations are met by the institution they lead.

It is through the Congress - the peoples' representatives -- that the voice of the American people gets heard; it is the Congress that provides the means by which the citizen's preferences guide public policy. For congressional leaders to be silent on issues of great importance, or to pass the buck, is an unacceptable abdication of duty. And yet "passing the buck" is what all three have done best.

Barack Obama was appalled, rightly, by Muammar Gaddafi's decision to unleash deadly force on his fellow Libyans. He then decided that the right thing to do about it was to go to war. The President may deny that it is a "war" but Americans have been firing weapons at Libyan soldiers and at civilians who support the Gaddafi regime. Armed drones have been sent to fire on Libyans. The President may play semantic games but, we're at war in Libya and we are there without the constitutionally-required authorization by Congress. Except for a few critical voices, in fact, members of Congress have been embarrassingly silent. When the President asserted (wrongly) that the Constitution gives him the power to act without legislative assent, the silence on Capitol Hill spoke volumes about the ignorance or cowardice at the Capitol. When the President pointed to the authorization he had received from the United Nations, few spoke up to declare that the constitution gives our representatives, not the French or British, the authority to commit the United States to military action.

Both the President and Defense Secretary Robert Gates obfuscate by repeating that the Administration has no intention of putting "boots on the ground". That is a quaint and meaningless assurance; this is not World War I; wars are fought not only by ground troops firing rifles and tossing grenades. An assault from the air is a military action.

I am of two minds as to whether or not the situation in Libya justifies an American military presence (why Libya and not Syria, for example). But it is a decision to be made by the only part of the American government that is constitutionally authorized to make such decisions in the absence of an invasion or imminent military threat - the Congress of the United States.

This congressional abdication of responsibiity is not limited to war or to Congress's interactions with Barack Obama. During George W. Bush's presidency, congressional leaders mounted almost no serious opposition to his stunning claims of presidential authority, including the right to decide for himself whether or not he was bound by federal law. His unprecedented and outrageous claims of executive privilege received only a tepid response. One member of Congress asked "who are we to question the President of the United States?". John Boehner has essentially conceded presidential authority in foreign and defense affairs, although there is substantial legislative authority and duty in both areas.

On the vital questions of federal budgeting, spending, and taxing - all of which are Article I congressional authorities - the President tells the Congress it should establish a special committee, suggests how many people should serve on it, and decides it will be chaired by his Vice President; congressional leaders quibble over how many to appoint, but they comply. When the President, earlier in his term wanted to meet with both Republicans and Democrats on budget matters, he summoned them, presided, called on them, chided them, like a teacher in a classroom, while the members of Congress - Congress is constitutionally the equal of, and independent of, the Executive - played the role of summoned subservients.

Barack Obama is no more pushy than any other President; in fact, it is human nature to try to push the bounds of one's authority. The fault is not with the President but with the Congress, an institution that has lost all sense of its obligations and responsibilities. When it is silent, the public's voice, which is heard through them, is silent. It is time for the Congress to elect leaders, in both the House and Senate, who understand that they are not "party" leaders, they are not participants in a secondary and minor branch of government, they are the constitutionally empowered representatives of the American people and they should act like it.

Image: AP/Susan Walsh

Drop-down image credit: Wikimedia Commons