Saturday, December 13, 2014

Parliament of Fools

Oh, the indignation! The outrage! That sinking feeling that you've been made fools of and rendered obsolete, and you may as well pack up and go home, and leave the job of running the country to the people who are already in charge, and quit pretending you have any say in the matter. Yes, this is the “feeling tone” we're getting out of Congress these days, and even though it's nothing more than feelings, it's quite on target. Congress is obsolete, but their obsolescence is of their own making, since they have always found it more politically expedient to cede their Constitutional powers and privileges to the sitting president (whoever it happens to be at the time) and to the Supreme Court (by refusing to redefine its scope, which it has the right to do) than to take responsibility. The courage to speak up and defy the president might be found in, say, 1 in 100 at best – the rest are all too eager to robotically raise their hands in the best Supreme Soviet style, and to sign pretty much anything that's placed in front of them. And as for the theory that the American people elect the best out of their number to represent them, well... how many Congressmen are the slightest bit more intelligent, rational, and non-impulsive than the average voter? I prefer to think most politicians are sent off to Washington just to get them out of our face (and to get them to shut up as well).

There has to be a theory somewhere that explains all this. All I know is that we regularly send people to Washington because they appear to have ideas... some of them seem downright bold; courageous, even. But the minute they get there they're grabbed up off the street and taken in a windowless van to some underground surgical facility where a plate is implanted in their head which turns them into petty, thieving, submissive, compliant nobodies. It's like something out of a “body snatchers” film. And when asked to explain their transformation, they mumble something about “compromise” (also known as pleasing no one by trying to please everyone).

In the meantime, the presidency rides triumphant, having accreted unto itself virtually all of the meaningful and significant powers and privileges that the Constitution explicitly assigns to Congress – and much more besides. So Congress becomes a rubber stamp in the best Warsaw Pact tradition, and you will hear nary a whimper about this from anyone in that “august body” (but more than a whimper from people on the outside). And it's not as if Congress has ceased to “make laws”. It's just that their laws typically originate somewhere in the executive branch, and the ones that don't are subject to, first, veto, and second, being completely ignored by the president and his minions. And as if that weren't enough, the Supreme Court reserves (un-Constitutionally, I might add) the right to declare any law passed by Congress null and void, which they do with alarming frequency. So much for the delicate and exquisitely-designed “separation of powers”.

So what are we talking about here? A flaw in the Constitution, or a flaw in human nature? I say both. The Constitution was a marvelous document as long as men of good will were in charge, but it started, fairly early in our history, to fail various stress tests, chief among them being wars. Wars have a magical way of turning presidents into dictators, and when the war is over not all of those dictatorial powers are returned to whence they came; a good deal are held onto because, well, it's good to be king, and you never know when they'll come in handy again. And anyone knows it's easier to rule by diktat than by vote; tyranny is for lazy people.

But does Congress take this lying down? Not a bit of it! They pass various “war powers acts” which are designed to restore the balance of power – but those acts are ignored, and there's nothing they can do about it. Any American president determined to be a “war president” can ask, paraphrasing Joseph Stalin, “How many divisions does Congress have (compared to me)?” And the answer, of course, is zero. And this doesn't bother anyone in Congress on a day-to-day basis; they would just as soon someone else take charge and thus be responsible, accountable, and blamable when things go wrong. The ideal for a Congressman is to be elected, go to Washington, and go into a state of suspended animation until it's time to campaign for re-election; that way he avoids making mistakes and taking blame. His record is pure and spotless, because it contains nothing – but that is apparently preferable to taking risks. (And, please note, the voters agree with this premise, or at least behave as if they do. They would rather send a bland nonentity to Washington than someone with ideas, because ideas are – somehow – threatening.)

Oh wait, I almost forgot – Congress also has “the power of the purse” (and I'm not talking about hitting a masher over the head with it, although that might be more useful than what is actually done). The president can't do a thing – can't move a muscle – unless Congress approves the funds. Yeah, well... by the time enough palms are greased, and enough late-night phone calls are made, those funds generally get approved even if no given individual will say they approve. And in those rare cases when there's a “showdown”, and a threat by one or both sides to (Shudder! Shake!) “shut down the government”, Congress always buckles and the president always gets his way.

So really, Congress is powerless, hopeless, and ridiculous. It doesn't even have a clearly-defined mission any more – at least not one that can't be readily taken over by someone else (in the executive branch, with far more efficiency). But they have to be kept in business for the sake of appearances – because we're busy “spreading democracy” throughout the world, based on the premise that our system is the best ever devised by man, and besides, look at how well it works, etc. Besides, if the president dissolved Congress the way leaders in other countries can dissolve parliament, and established himself as dictator, he'd still have to deal with the courts. (But how many divisions do they have, hmmm? You can see how long a two-branch system would last – about as long as it would take the president to have the Supreme Court demolished.)

So if it's all for show, and everybody knows it, why all the fuss over the CIA? Well, you don't have to dig very far down to figure out that the fuss isn't about the CIA per se, or even about anything it does or has done, but whom they did it for, namely George W. Bush and his team of Eeeeevil (as Rush Limbaugh would say) Republicans. Do you honestly think Dianne Feinstein would be freaking out if these offenses had occurred under a Democratic president? Please. They wouldn't even be holding hearings. What they seem to forget, of course, is that the CIA under Bush and the CIA under Obama are.... mmmm... probably just about identical. “Oh, but Obama told them to quit doing those naughty things!” Well, maybe he did and maybe he didn't, but it hardly matters. The CIA is going to do things their way no matter what, because they are accountable to nobody, and that includes Congressional committees and presidents. Oh sure, every once in a while they'll offer some low-level chump up as a sacrificial animal, but that's only to satisfy everyone and keep the pitchfork-wielding peasants at bay. The notion that Congress can “reform” the CIA is like saying that sheep can “reform” wolves.

And some will say, to be perfectly frank, that this is, maybe, the way things ought to be. After all, the CIA is full of smart, dedicated people who are not only much smarter than anyone in Congress, but probably much less corrupt (at least in the material, vs. moral, sense). And I am not one of those who believes that the CIA, along with other intelligence agencies, constitutes a “parallel government”. Most of what the government does matters little to them, or not at all. They don't mind letting it just fumble and lurch along on its merry way. What counts is power, connections, information – and, most of all, The Game. Give the intel guys a game to play, and they're happy. Start to criticize, or attempt to thwart, the game, and you get push-back, which is what is happening right now. Not only push-back, but push-back directed at the same wretches who gave them all that power (and money) in the first place, namely Congress. What ingrates!

So yeah, the CIA thing is just the latest in a long line of insults – the immediately previous one being immigration policy, and before that Obamacare, and waging war on Syria (which, fortunately, got vetoed by Putin – doing the job the U.S. Congress should have done). Obamacare, for that matter, has reared its misshapen head again because of the Gruber kerfuffle – which has added a new expression to the American lexicon. Getting “Grubered” is defined as getting lied to by the president in order to get a bill passed by Congress (them again!). And as to who to blame for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they've been going on so long that no one knows, any longer, who to blame – so they wind up blaming no one (an ideal outcome if you're a president or an ex-president). Unlike homelessness, which magically disappers whenever a Democrat takes over the White House, wars have a pesky way of lasting, and being highly visible (not to mention costly).

And it's not as if this is anything new. Who, among American liberals and Democrats, does not basically blame the Vietnam war on Richard Nixon, even though he inherited it from Johnson who inherited it from Kennedy? Someone who is only "anti-war" as long as they don't like the guy in the White House isn't really anti-war, are they? And someone who is only anti-CIA if we're talking about stuff that happened when someone from the other party was in the White House isn't really anti-CIA, are they? And the trouble with Congress – one of many – is that they are regularly subject to this sort of completely irrational, politically-based thinking... and they don't even realize it, or see it as a problem. “Of course we hate everything the other side does, and of course we love everything our side does!” It has nothing to do with moral absolutes, or principles, or even coherent policy. And yet we keep electing them, again and again. But maybe, at this late date, it doesn't matter, since they have given away any power they may have once had, along with all discernible integrity. Rather than rely on Congress to do the right thing and dissolve itself, maybe it's us who should be the realists and just pay attention to the president and his empire, and reserve Congress for occasional comic relief.

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