Friday, January 11, 2019

The Creep


No, not that creep — albeit the creep you're thinking of may be poised to accelerate the creep I'm thinking of: the creeping accretion of presidential power.

Every American child learns about the three branches of government, and the idea of "checks and balances."  Formulated by the Founders as a check on tyranny, it seemed like a pretty good idea at the time.  What they failed to foresee was the advent of the professional politician, and how that development would throw their plan for checks and balances into disarray.

Politicians hoping to win reelection do their best to avoid any action that might stir controversy: they much prefer to leave such actions to the President.  The last time Congress used its constitutional power to declare war was in 1941, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor; and all our current conflicts – in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – are unconvincingly based on the Authorization of Military Force against al-Qaeda, enacted in response to the 9/11 attacks.

 Congress also allows the President to act without its approval in cases of national emergency, but national emergency has never been well-defined.  Until now, presidents have used it primarily to impose economic sanctions on specific governments and individuals — actions Congress could have initiated on its own had it been so inclined.  In those instances, Congressional inaction may have been motivated more by laziness than by political peril, but still served to accelerate the creep of authority from the Legislature to the Executive.

Currently, Our President is very likely to use his emergency powers to build his wall, diverting the needed funds from Army Corps of Engineers projects currently budgeted to help victims of recent hurricanes and wildfires.  Most congressional Republicans seem ready to allow it, even though doing so would mean ceding fiscal authority to the executive — thereby compromising the single most important legislative check on executive power and further eroding what remains of our putative democracy.

Congress does have the authority to stop it, under the National Emergency Act of 1976; but that would entail Mitch McConnell, that most professional of professional politicians, letting a challenge reach the floor of the Senate.  He won't.

And the creep goes on.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Meanwhile, elsewhere...


Preoccupied with the chaos of our own national politics, it's easy enough to ignore the political chaos going on elsewhere.  Despite the best efforts of Our President, America certainly can't claim a monopoly on dysfunction; so let's take a moment to check in on a couple of our friends overseas.

If the test of a true compromise is that neither side is happy with it, Theresa May's Brexit deal passes with flying colors, unable to gain majority support even within her own Conservative party.  It is scarcely less contentious among Labour and Liberal MPs; only UKIP remains committed, and that minority party of xenophobes and neo-imperialists appears to be in rapid decline.  In the meanwhile, it looks like the UK is headed for a hard Brexit – with no negotiated exit plan – at the end of March.

Most economists agree that a hard Brexit will damage the British economy, but most Britons, like most Americans, pay scant attention to economists: typically, economic arguments just aren't visceral enough to sway the average voter.  Brexit is an ideological controversy that somehow managed to detach itself from party politics; and since the political parties are divided, no coherent approach to addressing it has emerged.  While a second Brexit referendum seems like the only logical approach to resolution, it probably would further divide the British public.

Nevertheless, the British deserve a new referendum, given that the first one was largely based on lies.  This time, the choice is more clear: between a hard Brexit with none of the advantages of EU membership, and remaining within the bloc, accepting the restraints membership entails.


Meanwhile, in France, Emmanuel Macron has been gobsmacked by the yellow vest movement, a genuinely populist, virtually leaderless series of protests by working class citizens — despite the best efforts of Jeanne-Marie LePen on the right and Jean-Luc Mélanchon on the left to jump out in front and lead the parade.  Even though the protests are dying down, the sentiments underlying them remain strong.

Macron was supposed to be France's savior — the new leader of a new party that would sweep away the old dysfunction.  When he turned out to be yet another entitled rich boy with strong corporatist tendencies, the French were sorely disappointed.  Unlike our own entitled rich boy, though, Macron has been smart enough to make some concessions.  Will they be enough to salvage his political career?  Probably not.  His tax cuts for the ultra-rich seem firmly entrenched.

*     *     *
Chaos notwithstanding, the multi-party democracies of Western Europe at least hold out the possibility of compromise and change.  In the US, though, it seems that our entrenched two-party system only can generate more division and more chaos.  The next two years of divided government are bound to be what the apocryphal Chinese curse calls "interesting times."