The Marshall Society would like to thank Matt Sowards for his guest post on the issue most people are ignoring in the debate on the debt crisis ...
Debt and leadership are two words that conjure up different, yet incredibly profound, images in one’s mind. Merely mentioning the first may cause some to scowl or think in dismay about living a life of constant hassle with creditors. In the case of the latter, the concept of leadership can make one swell with pride thinking of those whose leadership has personally inspired them. Perhaps General Washington leading soldiers into battle for the cause of Independence? Or even perhaps Chief Justice Marshall rendering an unpopular, yet vital, judicial opinion? Either way, the words are on opposite ends of our collective perspectives, however recently they have become intertwined.
As legislators on Capitol Hill continue to debate whether or not to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, these two words have been tossed around daily. Amidst all of the murmuring, mumbling, and mud-slinging, universal agreement does seem to be present on one thing: debt is bad. An over-simplified statement yes, but true nonetheless. Both Democrats and Republicans can agree that allowing the nation to default is an option that will lead to potentially catastrophic consequences to an already lagging economy. However, that is where agreement ends. On the right Republicans say the Democrats’ spending, taxing, and fiscal irresponsibility have led to this financial crisis. Conversely, on the left Democrats charge that the Bush tax cuts coupled with two wars have squandered the surplus President Bush inherited upon taking office in 2001.
One accusation has been abundantly clear: President Obama has refused to offer a plan of his own; he has failed to lead in this time of crisis. This statement, regardless of its factuality, offers a clear indication of a crisis that is equally as severe as the debt ceiling debate. Even more worrisome, this crisis could extend much longer than this quarrel on Capitol Hill. This crisis is one of governing.
To explain I’d like to draw your attention to the cornerstone of our Republic: the Constitution of the United States. Article 1 Section 8 states that “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United State.” To put this passage simply: Congress has the power of the purse.
According to the Constitution, decisions made regarding financing the federal government must be made within the halls of Congress, not from behind the resolute desk of the Oval Office. Yet with every debate we wait with baited breath for a decision from the White House. What plan does the president support? Where is the president’s plan? Where is the president budget? What legislation will the president push?
Congress has for some time been ceding power to the Executive Branch, and that, my friends, is quite dangerous. From early in the twentieth century onward Congress has routinely given up their Constitutional power to the president. This does two things: it creates a stronger Executive Branch while simultaneously weakens the Legislative Branch.
This certainly was not the type of government the Founders had in mind.
James Madison, in Federalist #47, wrote that “the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments ought to be separate and distinct... The several departments of power are distributed and blended in such a manner as at once to destroy all symmetry and beauty of form, and to expose some of the essential parts of the edifice to the danger of being crushed by the disproportionate weight of other parts.”
Essentially, Madison is saying that the Republic will work best when each of its three branches serve their intended, yet distinct, purposes. The reason our government is divided into these three branches is to ensure that power will be evenly divided. The Founders, especially Madison in Federalist 47, saw danger in the total concentration of power. When power is concentrated in one body, or even within one person, the government becomes off-balanced. Instead of working independent of each other, and thus checking and balancing one another, the scale becomes tiled in one direction. In this sense it has become tilted in the direction of the American presidency.
More importantly, both Parties are to blame. They are both guilty of passing the buck of decision making to the Executive. The Executive, by consequence, has been happy to oblige. Crafting policy and legislation is the role of the Congress, yet how many of the following can you associate with a particular member of Congress? Or even a particular body of Congress?
1. The New Deal
2. The New Frontier
3. The Great Society
4. Supply-side economics
5. Bush tax cuts
What do these pieces of legislation all have in common? They are all examples of major legislation that were pushed forward by the president. No one relates Sam Rayburn with Kennedy’s New Frontier, and certainly no one credits Tip O’Neill with the rise of supply-side economics under Reagan.
The issue being debated on Capitol Hill this weekend is vitally important, that fact is of no doubt. However, the greater crisis is not in the way we do money but instead in the way we do government. Congress has fallen from its position high atop the mountain of equal government. In the long run, their refusal to make difficult decisions is of greater cost to the continuance of our Republic than any momentary monetary malfunction.
At some point someone in Congress has to step up to lead. Leadership does not mean demonizing opposition, making deals, strong arming colleagues, or grand standing for reporters. Leadership means looking at information, the “facts”, and making legislative decisions independent of the presidency that are in the best interest of the American people. Eventually, and hopefully soon, Congress must take off their training wheels and start playing Big Kid Government. If we are to preserve our Republic, Congress must step up to the plate and fulfill their constitutional obligation as the legislative leaders of our country.
Passing the buck is always the easiest decision. Letting someone else make the call, and potentially take the political fall, is always easier than sticking your own neck out and putting your name on the line.
However, if I may impart some advice in conclusion, to quote a man much wiser than I: “in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”