Sunday, December 08, 2013

Partisan First, American Second

Over the last two centuries, United States law has grown to recognize a variety of mistakes and shortcomings of different presidential administrations and existing laws. The Constitution has been amended several times, but also many other policies and statutes have been changed that did not originate during the time of our independence. Many such amendments or changes came about after some mistake or conflict-of-interest presented itself, that had not previously crossed the minds of our legislature or judiciary. Prior to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, there did not exist the 2-term limit on the office of the president. Indeed, Roosevelt himself was elected for four consecutive terms (although he did not serve out his last term in its entirety). Whether to promote more robust competition between our political parties or just to minimize the possibility of presidential abuse, the term limit was set forth to cap particularly bad leaders (who perhaps happened to get re-elected only for partisan or otherwise "wrong" reasons), but also to preserve the importance of the office itself as being greater than the importance of the individual occupying it. Abuse in politics is a familiar concept to most; nowadays it has become more of a sarcastic joke among the population which has grown used to elite corruption and scandals. The Korean and Vietnam Wars cost the nation a lot, not just in terms of finances but also in American lives. And they occurred for so long despite widespread public opposition; the costs even became unbearable domestically as so many riots and protests were exhausting local governments across the nation. To mitigate the ability of the elites to push for unpopular policies in times of international strife, the War Powers Resolution was passed in 1973 to restrain presidents from letting the power of the office get to their heads.

The Resolution came as common sense to many, but it was also under intense criticism on the grounds that it prevented the president from doing what needed to be done to defend the nation and its interests. President Nixon outright vetoed the bill to preserve his powers, only to have his veto overridden in the end anyway. Under the Resolution, presidents would still be able to initiate military intervention as they saw fit, but they would need to present Congress a formal report within 48 hours of the intervention. Congress would then assess the situation and eventually decide whether or not the conflict and details were worthy of continued pursuit, and if so the conflict would be funded and supported to corroborate with the president. If Congress decided it were not in the nation's best interests to pursue intervention, then the president would have to withdraw American forces within 60 days of Congress's decision.

Presidents have generally voiced the opinion that the Resolution unconstitutionally violates their power. And indeed, this makes sense as everyone seeks to preserve their power. Consider how Congress would react to a proposal that would give them term limits. Or how gun supporters react when any proposal is voiced that would make the process of obtaining a gun more sophisticated. The preservation of rights or power thus seems innate to all humans, even if such preservation is inconsistent with the interests of the greater good.

To this end, Presidents have always been supported by Congress in matters of military intervention, even after the Resolution passed forty years ago. President George H. W. Bush received support from Congress, even though he made clear that Congressional approval would be irrelevant to his decision to intervene in Kuwait. After the 9/11 terror attacks, Congress was quick to support all measures that President George W. Bush believed were appropriate to retaliate and protect the nation in the future. It wasn't until the Syria conflict earlier this year that Congress seemed ready to deny President Obama approval (whatever his motivations for seeking it may have been), which would have been a first for the nation.

Yet that event seems different from previous times, in that the denial of such approval would not necessarily have been considered a Congressional check as the Resolution intended. The partisanship in Congress has gotten so ridiculously petty that the two parties cannot seem to agree on anything, because a compromise on an issue is likely to concede power to the other party. And when time came close for Congress to vote on intervention in Syria, more Republicans than Democrats came out in advance and indicated that they would deny the President support. Although public opinion generally did not reflect support either, it is transparent that Republicans were not in opposition just to placate the population, because the Democrats in Congress were still generally willing to support the President. Even if denying intervention would have cost the nation international shame and embarrassment for not fulfilling the promises it made to the world, Republicans still would have preferred this over the unthinkable prospect of supporting a Democratic president.

Checks of elite power are thus becoming toys for political parties to use in ways that benefit them, without necessarily considering what's best for the nation as a whole. And it's only getting worse, as the Senate recently passed the Nuclear Option enabling the president to pass judicial and Cabinet appointees with just a simple majority in the Senate. Now the office of the president has a little more freedom and power in passing appointees that are more closely aligned with his ideology. Even though it seems that this development would serve both parties in their best interest (provided that the president belonged to them), it seems that the Democratic-controlled Senate had to pass this measure as the partisanship yielded nearly four times the amount of filibusters for the current president's appointees than the nation has experienced in over 200 years of its existence. In response, the Republicans pointed to the fact that they had only actually denied appointment to 5 appointees and that the majority had indeed been passed. But putting the system in a perpetual chokehold via filibusters does not help one's cause either, especially considering Senator McConnell's statement that Republicans would pass the Nuclear Option themselves as soon as they regained control of the Senate.

Therefore, the future of the nation's leadership (and the nation) looks dreary at best. It is seemingly irrelevant how well the nation is doing as long as the political parties are happy. Partisanship has reached a boiling point where the least amount of bills have been passed by Congress in the nation's history. Checking the powers of the president has become an art form for talking points and political one-ups-manship instead of legitimately keeping the president in balance. Despite all that our nation has learned over time by way of mistakes and the like, we seem to be headed in a dangerous direction that threatens to bring the entire system to a stand-still. Perhaps that is precisely what is needed to make the necessary changes this time. Perhaps it will take the nation being brought to its knees to put an end to political bickering, gerrymandering, the blame game, and the race to the bottom. All of the reforms and amendments to date have clearly been insufficient in helping the nation progress in the best capacity that it can.

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