On this New Year’s Eve, I am sure many of you are making resolutions for 2011. Some are resolving to exercise more and lose weight—a perennial resolution after the bounty of the Christmas Season. Others are resolving to do things such as pay down debt, save more money, or start retirement planning.
Whatever your resolution is this year, I am sure it is well intended and honorable, but the odds are overwhelming that by the second week of January your resolution will have devolved to disillusion. It happens every year to millions of Americans. In fact, there is a cottage industry dedicated to helping you set your sights lower and providing advice on how to do better at sticking to your resolutions.
My advice is to resolve to make no resolutions. Don’t make promises you can’t or won’t keep. Jesus cautioned us to not swear by any oaths, but rather, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’.” Good advice.
Many people are optimistic for 2011, because they believe the 112th Congress with a new Republican majority in the House and the Senate will resolve to balance the budget, end earmarks, shift the U.S. economic policy back toward free enterprise, and restore integrity to a Federal government. My advice at the national level is the same as my personal advice—don’t expect a whole lot of change. It is not that I don’t think change is necessary; it’s just that change is difficult. If it is hard for us to keep our personal resolutions after two weeks, how can we realistically expect dramatic change in an institution that, despite having a new Republican majority, is about 85% unchanged?
More to the point, our Constitution has built in dampers on radical change through a system of checks and balances. Gridlock is alive and well and the current Democrat in the White House has the same policy agenda even if Congress wants to go in a different direction. And then you have the steady hand on the tiller—a Supreme Court that rarely experiences any significant shift in ideology.
George Washington, at the Constitutional Convention, argued for a stronger Executive Branch and more power for the President, but the rest of the Founding Fathers, still feeling the sting of a dominant King George and the English monarchy, opted to vest more power in the Congress. Their belief was that the Legislative Branch, especially the House of Representatives with two-year terms of office, would be closer to the populace and better represent the will of the people.
Even if they believed the Legislative Branch would better represent the people, the Founding Fathers were not naïve about the trappings of powers and how the potential for greed and corruption was always a potential stumbling stone for our democracy. Not wanting any branch of government to dominate, they built in enough flexibility in the Constitution and some Presidents have exerted greater powers of the Executive Branch.
Historically, we have seen shifts between Congress and the President in the balance of power in the United States. Abraham Lincoln used Executive privilege to enact many of his anti-slavery policies and to prosecute the Civil War. So much so, that after his assassination, Congress reacted by putting a stranglehold on Andrew Johnson’s Presidency. That Congress even went so far as to impeach Johnson for charges that basically amounted to nothing more than daring to disagree with Congress. Fortunately, for the republic, the Senate failed to convict Johnson and we continue to have vigorous and healthy disagreements between Presidents and Congress.
Theodore Roosevelt used the bully pulpit to ram his policies through Congress and sometimes by Executive Order. Woodrow Wilson engaged the United States in World War I largely by Executive Power, a move that cost him dearly when he tried to get Congress to approve his life-long dream of establishing the League of Nations. Franklin D. Roosevelt took a note from his cousin’s playbook to implement some of the most sweeping legislative policies in history. Kennedy, and later Johnson, used the Executive Power as Commander in Chief to engage the U.S. in an undeclared war in Viet Nam. This led Congress to enact the War Powers Act and severely limit the President’s power to wage war.
Currently, we live in a time of unheard of Congressional power. There is virtually no matter that Congress does not deem itself fit to investigate or regulate. While budget deficits grow, Congress has annually failed to enact appropriation bills for the Federal government for nearly four years in a row. Instead they punt by passing Continuing Resolutions. Yet, Congress somehow finds the time to hold hearings on issues such as steroid use in baseball, or to castigate industry leaders for their policies because they don’t run their business the way Congress thinks they should.
In recent years, Congress has developed legislative gimmickry such as earmarks, or continuing resolutions, or pieces of legislation so large that only the dedicated few ever read them before they are passed. The current state of legislating in the United States is such that it is nearly impossible to hold a Member of Congress accountable for their vote and this is by design. Acts of Congress are like ornament-laden Christmas trees; there are so many babbles and bells that you are bound to like some of them. If you listen to campaign rhetoric, it is difficult to tell who is good and who is bad. There is always some vote that can be used to portray a candidate in a certain light, either good and bad.
And, what about Congressional Resolutions? Congress annually passes hundreds of resolutions, most of them non-binding. Many of these resolutions are of less consequence than you resolving to exercise more and lose weight in 2011. Congress recognizes things such 50th wedding anniversaries, community leaders, local heroes, and a variety of people groups—all good stuff and no doubt these people have done something special. But, if Congress cannot find time to pass the appropriations bills, a responsibility prescribed in the Constitution, do they have any business passing resolutions just so they can get their constituent’s name in the Congressional Record?
As for me and my hopes for 2011, I would like Congress to stop adopting meaningless resolutions and get on with the business of governing this nation.