Sunday, October 14, 2012

It's Congress That Counts


This article originally appeared on The Truman Doctrine on 10 October 2012.

With both conventions and the first debate over, the presidential campaign season is moving ahead at full speed. At the heart of this election is the state of America’s economy and who presents the best vision of where to go from here. Republicans make the argument that the President should have done better over the last four years and hasn’t earned reelection. Democrats counter this by pointing out the depth of the 2008 crisis inherited from President Bush and the obstructionism of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. Who is really to blame for this mess?

To go back to eighth grade government class, the U.S. Constitution mandates our government consists of three branches—legislative, executive, and judiciary. All laws involving government revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives. The Senate approves international treaties. Congress regulates business and commerce, naturalization, currency, postal service, roads, promoting arts and sciences, patents and trademarks, declaring war, and funding and regulating the military. The President is the Commander in Chief of the military, negotiates international treaties, appoints ambassadors, judges, and agency heads, and must report to Congress in a State of the Union. That’s it. The U.S. Constitution is nowhere near as long a document as the political claims based upon it.

The founders set out the legislative branch first in Article 1 and devoted twice as many sections to comprehensively setting out its duties and powers than those covering the executive branch. Despite what our elected leaders may say, the President is not primarily responsible for drafting or passing domestic legislation. A President may use the prominence of his office as a ‘bully pulpit’ to suggest, influence, and work with partners to cajole Congress into passing items from a legislative agenda. But it is Congress’ job to enact legislation.

Yet many Americans have come to believe that the President is truly the most powerful person in the country and even the world and is to blame for everything that ails the nation. Any disappointing economic or employment data is his fault. The failure to push through Congress a platform or legislative agenda offered before election is equivalent to a lie or betrayal. If business isn’t growing, roads and bridges aren’t being built, or government services are not serving citizens well, the President is blamed. This is actually quite dishonest.

Why have we let the U.S. Congress off the hook? The truth is plain to see from a simple read of Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. Congress is responsible for controlling and regulating all of the domestic areas of importance to the daily lives of average Americans. Their powers are specifically enumerated and they are granted the additional power to do all that is ‘necessary and proper’ to pursue these duties. You don’t have to be a constitutional scholar or lawyer to understand that. Every complaint Americans make about our society or economy falls squarely within the purview of powers granted to Congress, a system the President can only influence from the outside.

Closely tied to this misunderstanding is the acceptance by many of the idea that the President should act as the CEO of America and our government should be run like a corporation. Many Americans believe a President should have business experience. That’s certainly the argument being made by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. If this were true, this fundamental misunderstanding would be excusable. However, the truth written into the Constitution is that the power and duty to regulate and control the domestic economy, budget, and taxes rests squarely with Congress. This is a fundamental point. The President doesn’t have the power to control these things alone like a business owner. He must go to Congress, which is rather like a huge, partisan, divided board of directors, to affect any change in the domestic situation.

If a company were run by 535 directors who were divided between two camps, each possessing their own constituents and agenda, any CEO would have a very difficult time getting anything done. Real companies have perhaps a dozen directors at most, some of whom may even be related and most having worked closely together for years. The largest difference is that together they are all still striving to achieve the same fundamental goal.

The goal of any business is to create profit for owners and shareholders. The goal of Government is to protect and serve the interests of its citizens. This is inherently unprofitable from a financial perspective. So long as a firm is profiting, a CEO and board can be seen as doing their jobs. It is much more difficult for a President to succeed in the role of serving average Americans when they do not have direct powers to make the laws necessary to fulfill these duties, though they are seen as responsible for them by voters. If America is a corporation in trouble domestically, according to our Constitution it should be our board of directors—Congress– that should be fired and not the President.

The President is not a CEO and America is a country, not a business. Oddly, Americans don’t vote for Presidents based upon the areas they are directly responsible for according to the Constitution, namely national security and foreign policy. When Americans go to the polls to elect a President, their main considerations are almost exclusively domestic issues. A simple read of Article 2 of the Constitution shows that the President’s named duties are in foreign policy, international agreements, and national security. When asked about which issues most concern them when electing a President, voters consistently rank these issues somewhere in the middle or even at the bottom. His largest domestic duties are to appoint the heads of important federal agencies and federal judges. Federal agencies and judges are still beholden to laws passed by Congress.

Congress has a lower approval rating than when there were fears of communism in America; it is no wonder Representatives and Senators want to deflect voter dissatisfaction toward the executive branch. It is also much easier to place blame on one person than it is to take it up with 535 members of Congress. The disenchantment is bipartisan. Despite Congress’ unpopularity as a whole, most Americans seem satisfied enough with their own Senators and Representatives. They continue to reelect them again and again despite deeply disapproving of their performance. One take away from this is that Americans tend to like their own representatives; it’s everyone else’s representatives that are the problem.

While we’ve come to expect more from our presidents, we’ve come to expect less from Congress. They spend less and less time actually in session. More and more of their time is devoted to fundraising for reelection. While Americans’ net worth has gone down since the 2008 crisis began, Congress’ net worth has actually risen. Almost half of our Representatives and Senators are millionaires. They are overwhelmingly older, whiter, and more male than the rest of the population. We also have the most veteran underrepresented Congress since the end of WWII during a time when America has been at war in the Middle East for over a decade, creating a generation of new veterans who are struggling by many measures.

Despite America’s professed love of our Constitution, we don’t seem to pay much attention to it when it comes to who we vote for and why. If we did, we would blame Congress for the dismal state of our domestic economy and not the President. We wouldn’t keep sending the same Congressmen back to Washington over and over again and blame it all on the President. We would pay a good deal more attention to the foreign and national security experience and policy proposals of presidential candidates. We would put more emphasis on these characteristics than on business experience. We would lay blame where blame is due.

All you have to do is read the job descriptions written into the Constitution as we all learned in eighth grade government class. When voters go to the polls this November, they shouldn’t blame this President for our troubles, or any other President for that matter. Congress is responsible for this mess.