Washington is suddenly embroiled in one of its most time-honored traditions, a debate about the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution, specifically how it should be applied to our efforts in Libya. But don't worry! This is not a column about the War Powers Act, the term paper topic of choice for earnest AP social studies students for roughly the past four decades. Instead, it is about the bipartisan problem of institutional cowardice in the American political system.
The War Powers Act--which sets an arbitrary deadline for presidents to seek congressional approval for military engagements--is just one facet of a much more serious malady: acute buck-passing.
There are good arguments on every side of the Libyan war. But few people in either party want to have them. "Congress has war powers, too," writes former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy in National Review Online, and if Congress wanted to stop the war it could have done so the day Obama announced it. If it approved of what the president has done, it could have said so the same day as well. Instead, the War Powers Act gives Congress an artificial excuse to do nothing and see how the political chits land.
A world of gimmicks
But the real buck-passing is to be found elsewhere. Consider the countless budgetary gimmicks--mostly championed by Republicans--working their way through the legislative digestive tract. Balanced budget amendments and similar mechanisms might ultimately be necessary to get our fiscal house in order, but they're only necessary because Congress and the White House are institutionally incapable of fulfilling their obligations to spend within their means. It's like an overweight man insisting that someone else has to be in charge of his diet. It could be the only recourse, but it hardly speaks well of the guy's self-control.
There's ample blame to go around, but not everybody is equally blameworthy. The Republicans, under the leadership of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, have introduced a serious plan to bring debt and spending under control, and the response from the Democrats is wildly irresponsible rhetoric about throwing seniors to the wolves, off a cliff or some other cartoonish metaphor. The Democrats haven't even fulfilled their minimal obligation to offer a budget in more than 750 days. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., says it would be "foolish" for the Democrats to even bother.
Meanwhile, President Obama's proposal isn't an actual budget that can be scored and measured by the Congressional Budget Office, but a scathing speech in which he offers gassy snake oil solutions and more arbitrary gimmicks. If his ideas don't bring spending under control, years after he leaves office, Obama swears that an "independent commission" will make all the necessary cuts. This from the same president who insisted for that year that he needed to wait for his deficit reduction commission to make its recommendation and then ignored the recommendations when they arrived.
Let someone else do it
Again, this is not a new phenomenon. It traces itself back to the Progressive era idea that governance should be taken over by unelected and "disinterested" experts. But in recent years the problem has metastasized. Congress selectively outsourced its unique constitutional obligation to levy taxes to the Federal Communications Commission and the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (created by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002). The FCC taxes long distance phone calls and then spends the money on school computers, Internet upgrades for rural hospitals and the like. That's nifty, but it's a job for Congress.
The Environmental Protection Agency-- with Obama's apparent approval--is champing at the bit to take over vast swaths of the economy by declaring carbon emissions a pollutant subject to its capricious regulation. "ObamaCare" is cut from the same cloth, creating the Independent Payment Advisory Board-- that independent commission aforementioned designed to catch the can Obama wants to kick down the road. It also creates countless other opportunities for bureaucrats to "fill in" policies as they see fit, without popular or congressional approval.
There are solutions in the works. The proposed REINS Act (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act) would require congressional approval for any regulatory decision that would impose an economic cost higher than $100 million. There are reasonable criticisms of such legislation, but there are precious few defenses of the status quo. Similarly, the intensified debate over the Libyan war shows that eventually the people will demand accountability and leadership, alas often only after all other options have been exhausted.
More and more, it seems as if our politicians want to be the divorced parent who only visits on weekends to do the fun stuff: Give out goodies, go to the movies, enjoy pony rides and ice cream cake, while expecting somebody else to be the tough parent who has to deal with the costs and the consequences. That is a natural human desire, particularly for politicians, a breed of professionals who have an unhealthy need to be liked. The problem is, that's not what they're being paid to do.
Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI.