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Borde-nough: A deficit in leadership

Published: April 18, 2011
Section: Opinions


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Each year, Americans devote billions of dollars and incalculable man-hours to discipline, in the most boring sense of the word. Whether the target is children, pets, neighbors, fellow citizens, or foreigners on the other side of the world, the cause of controlling others’ behavior sometimes seems to have become as typically American as the cause of liberty.

Bad leadership can, generally speaking, cause Americans much more trouble than bad dogs, bad kids, bad Third World peasants, or the guy down the street who steals people’s trash cans. But three recent events—President Barack Obama’s Libyan war, the recently averted government shutdown, and the scheme to end Medicare emerging from the office of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan— all demonstrate that the rules needed to restrain politicians’ behavior aren’t functioning as well as one would hope. Fortunately, each episode also suggests ways in which the rules of the political system might be tweaked to give the public reason to expect more from leaders, and to give leaders incentives to meet those expectations.

Many supporters of the president would dispute the claim that the Libyan war, now in its fourth week, involved any wrongdoing. The US is fighting on the “right” side, against Libya’s dictator Muammar Qaddafi. And the commitment, they say, is limited and cheap, involving mainly air attacks and costing (so far, anyway) only $1 billion, compared to the estimated total Federal outlays this year of $3.7 trillion.

That line of argument sits oddly in the mouths of Democrats who had spent the last decade criticizing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama himself was not one of them, but there’s more to his Libyan policy than “answering the calls of a threatened people:” the new attack is providing the administration with a lengthy relaxation of public scrutiny of its expensive, ineffective Afghan policy. Republican critics of Obama’s Libyan adventure sound no less principled after a decade in which they slavishly backed any war that the president felt like fighting.

The most important principle, however, may be the one that both parties sidestep. Regarding both the Iraq and Libyan wars, opinions varied widely as to whether military action was warranted. But in the end, only one opinion mattered—that of the president.

That’s not how the political system was meant to operate. In part to avoid allowing the executive branch to embark upon costly military adventures in a king-like fashion, the Constitution was designed to give Congress the power to declare war.

Obama and his predecessors have consistently calculated that it’s easier to convince Americans to support troops in the field than it is to convince the country to put them there. Knowing that the Constitution has been interpreted to allow Congress to be sidestepped in exigent circumstances, presidents have simply treated the exception as the rule. Much money can be spent and many bodies can pile up before Congress gets a say—and when it does, it gets to decide only the loaded question of whether to support the troops.

The Libyan incursion reinforced an existing breach of rules. The budget battle that almost closed the government last weekend threatened to willfully misapply a legitimate rule for illegitimate ends.

The Anti-Deficiency Act (ADA), an old law that makes government shutdowns happen when Congressional appropriations of money to run the government lapse, was meant by its 19th Century authors as a way to end presidents’ bad habits of spending more money than was appropriated. There was no plan to create a basis for blackmail and brinkmanship.

But politicians displaying unmistakable contempt for the electorate have chosen to read the ADA as little more than a schedule for their budget games. These contests draw tremendous attention and give the President and top Republicans a chance to look statesmanlike at a moment when America’s global position offers few opportunities for genuinely impressive statesmanship. But as leaders know well, their games cause great hardship for the people who number the most but evidently matter the least to politicians: low and middle-income Americans who do the most interfacing with the government as wards, supplicants and employees.

This treatment might be excusable if it were a necessary step toward solving the country’s fiscal emergency. But as long as neither party is bold enough to acknowledge that both higher taxes and lower spending are necessary to restore the country’s finances, budget debates like this amount to idle posturing.

Chairman Ryan’s maneuvering to undermine Medicare isn’t idle, but that’s no excuse for it. In his mind, if silver-spoon Americans don’t benefit from a rule, it must not be worth keeping.

Ryan proposes—apparently, according to comments made Tuesday, with the support of House Speaker John Boehner—to turn Medicare into a system of vouchers for the purchase of private insurance. The new rules will apply to Americans 55 years old or younger, because Ryan and friends calculate that by dividing the electorate on the proposal, they can strip away important entitlements more easily.

The value of the vouchers won’t increase as fast as the cost of insurance, so affected senior citizens and other Medicare beneficiaries will quickly encounter a situation in which they’ll lose coverage if they lack the money to keep it.

That suits Ryan fine. He has long schemed to shift government resources away from programs that benefit ordinary Americans, having proposed in the past to eliminate the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, replace Medicare and Medicaid with insurance vouchers for almost everyone, turn Social Security into a system of private investments that wouldn’t guarantee income and tax the value of employer-provided medical insurance for employees who receive it. His votes to lower taxes on rich people and corporations, bail out giant companies and banks and fight every possible war have shown where his sympathies lie.

These examples suggest that the rules in question in each one need some improvement to keep the politicians involved in line. Potential solutions do exist, if the political will exists to employ them.

Presidents who want to start wars today typically don’t have the same excuse as their predecessors for taking action without a Congressional vote. Technology has caught up with the law. Mobile phones and computing allow elected officials, like other people, to be reached anywhere, anytime, and because potential enemies all have technology that enables them to detect attacks, the element of surprise is worth little. New rules should require presidents to submit their war schemes to Congress, if necessary for remote voting.

New incentives are also needed to make the old rules governing government shutdowns work better. Politicians should have an incentive not to engage in brinkmanship. Shutdowns like the one recently avoided should come with a string attached: if one occurs, new federal elections must be held within 90 days. If politicians can’t do their jobs, the public should have a chance to choose new ones.

As for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, it’s time to finish the work begun in the last century. None of these programs can fulfill their critical functions if Americans expect that some political entrepreneur like Ryan will destroy them before their own hour of need comes. That’s why constitutional amendments are needed to make the rights these programs protect as permanent as the freedoms of the Bill of Rights.

Changing the rules on our federal leaders is only fair. They have, after all, been changing them on us. They can be disciplined without any chains or handcuffs. Just remember: the safe word is always “dignity.”