The White House and Congress continue to dance the fiery Illegal Libyan War Fandango, in which various representatives of both parties stomp and shout about the War Powers Act, while the President’s spokesmen slink away to the chatter of castanets, whispering saucy demurrals that “the hostilities clause of that resolution is not met.”
Taking Obama’s lead, reporters have whirled onto the stage with a fiery chorus of “Every President thinks the War Powers Act is unconstitutional!” This could be the first time in years the media has spoken approvingly of Richard Nixon, even by allusion, since he actually did try to veto the WPA.
Nixon’s veto was overruled in Congress, and the War Powers Act hit the books. Obama and his defenders are essentially saying it’s a dead letter unless people really get worked up about it. Otherwise, it just lies there, a hornet’s nest no one wants to disturb by having a proper debate and vote concerning its repeal. It’s a “kinda sorta law,” one of many that only binds the central government when the public is outraged enough to insist upon obedience.
Public outrage is a terrible choice for restraining government action. For one thing, it has a tendency to fade before can actually sweep anyone out of office. Barack Obama, like every other national politician, will be judged by many factors when the voters get a crack at him in 2012. His fealty to the War Powers Act, or any other restraint on presidential power, will be only one of many considerations.
If public opinion becomes the only serious barrier to government action, public officials have a tremendous incentive to abuse their power. If the public grows ornery about an illegal war, a massive unconstitutional benefit program should be just the thing to quiet them down!
Even the plausible threat of being voted out of office is not enough to dissuade the political class from grabbing at certain brass rings. Some of the people who saddled us with ObamaCare had a fairly good idea it would cost them their seats. Democrat Party leadership certainly understood there would be an electoral price to pay. Permanently changing the relationship between the public and the State was very much worth the price.
Politicians might not enjoy getting voted out of office, but the real personal cost to them is minimal. How many defeated, or even disgraced, members of Congress go on to be paupers? The sword they fall upon to pass something like ObamaCare is made of foam rubber. There’s even a good chance that transitory public anger will fade, and a Bart Stupak-style career immolation will be rehabilitated into legendary statesmanship, when the media writes the second or third draft of history.
The growing mass of “kinda sorta” laws add up to a kind of government by media. If politicians can do anything the public doesn’t strenuously object to, then the ability to provoke or suppress strenuous reaction becomes incredibly valuable. How many veteran reporters who pounded out breathless updates on the Iran-Contra affair are completely asleep during the vastly more damning “Gun Walker” scandal? How many average news consumers know what “Gun Walker” is… even after a week of blockbuster congressional hearings?
Sometimes big stories bubble past the media filter, especially in this new age of open-source online journalism. That’s no small matter. The big stories that put the Drudge Report on the map, and brought down Dan Rather, were tectonic shifts in the media landscape. Nevertheless, the power of the mainstream press to hype or sedate the public is still formidable. If we would make outrage the only limit to power, we are handing immense power to the makers of outrage.
The makers of outrage are not particularly upset by Obama’s actions in Libya, so the public is quiescent. Obama sees little long-term political risk in going after Qaddafi, and great public-relations benefit if he actually gets him, so he does what he pleases, and dares Congress to do something Constitutional about it. With the War Powers Act null and void, the only effective limit Congress can impose is defunding the operation… and many of them view such a drastic act as political suicide for themselves. The makers of outrage would have a field day with them.
The notion of controlling the political class by threatening to vote them out of office is a widespread, and dangerous, delusion. That might work in the aggregate, if a politician constantly abuses power in a variety of ways, but even then it’s hardly a safe bet. How carefully would the average citizen obey any particular law if he only had to face judgment once every couple of years, and had millions of dollars available to advertise himself to a vast jury… many of whom benefit from his largesse, or are directly in his employ?
Americans must insist their government show absolute fealty to existing laws, stretching back to the Constitution itself. If a law such as the War Powers act is improper, then let it be properly removed, rather than being left on the table so it can be snatched up later, and used as a cudgel against Presidents the media dislikes. Unconstitutional laws should be blocked from inception, not dumped on the American landscape like toxic waste, and left to rot because removal is too hazardous for the political class to contemplate.
Treating the necessity to survive the occasional vote as the only limit to official power is a recipe for… well, exactly what we have now.