Formal and Informal War

Congress has formally declared war only 11 times in US history, the last six instances pertaining to World War II alone (one declaration against each member of the Axis). So technically, America hasn’t fought an “official” war since 1945. Additionally, Congress has authorized the use of force overseas 11 times, which includes the conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq (both 1991 and 2003).

It’s been estimated that presidents have used force abroad without congressional approval over 200 times. Notably, every modern president has at some point claimed that the War Powers Act of 1973 — which was intended to restrain their power to unilaterally involve the US in foreign conflicts — is an “unconstitutional infringement upon the power of the executive branch.”


Want a Job With 239 Vacation Days? Become a Member of Congress

As if Congress’s unprecedented level of dysfunction wasn’t bad enough on its own, there’s an added insult to the public they’re failing to serve: as you’ve deduced from the title, our representatives are off for two-thirds of the year, exponentially more than the average American. Again, this is despite the fact that their already-minimal time working is essentially wasted, as a sobering article and graph from PolicyMic shows:

But what remains most astonishing about our representatives on the Hill is not only the quantity of legislation, but the amount of time spent working. The Congressional calendar for this coming year consists of 126 days, leaving members of Congress 239 days to perhaps tour our great nation, toy with the idea of running for higher office, and maybe visit a natural disaster or two. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s calendar releases rather embarrassing scheduling without a single 5-day work week or weekend.  If you are already feeling riled up about this, I would not suggest looking at the month of August.

So, how? How can hard-working Americans, residents of one of the most overworked countries in the world, commute five times a week to and from work while their money is squandered away in one of the two or three weekly meetings Congress manages in squeeze in?

The juxtaposition between our political elites — our so-called public servants — and the largely struggling American people could not be clearer. This is the same political body whose individual members are far wealthier than most of their constituents, to say nothing of its lack of diversity (the average Congressman, in both the House and Senate, is an older white male with a background in law).

Believe it or not, it gets worse:

Apparently, these weeks off are called “District work periods,” also known as free travel at taxpayer expense.

Even Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) admits the wrongdoing of his colleagues: “I think we’d get more work done if we spent more time in Washington. We come in, we go straight to votes, and then we go to our separate quarters. We don’t really get to know each other anymore.”

But Cantor disagrees in publishing a schedule with many long breaks allowing for travel and “district work periods.”

This isn’t the beginning. This unabashed congressional laziness has run rampant over the past decade and is only inflating. In 2007, Fox News reported expensive monthly trips taken by members of Congress to far-off lands on whose dime? Oh yes, that’s right. I think I’m starting to understand her point.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and his wife are particularly cultured because of his spot on the Hill. He and his wife frequent Aspen Institute conferences, along with many other members of Congress. The Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit dedicated to fostering enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue, has covered the costs of sending members of Congress to their seminars and workshops in the past. From 2000-2007, the Miller couple has attended 30 conferences with a total value of over $200,000. But that is not the kicker. Rep. George Miller, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman, did not even have a place at these conferences. Only 3 of the 30 conferences he has attended were related to education. And don’t let the name fool you: The Aspen Institute certainly does not hold conferences in Aspen only. Mr. and Mrs. Miller have traveled to Aspen conferences in:

Naples, Florida, San Juan, Vancouver, Prague, Grand Cayman, Florence, Helsinki, Punta Mita, Mexico, Scottsdale, China, Barcelona, Montega Bay, Jamaica, Rome, Cancun, Venice, Dublin, Istanbul, and Hawaii.

Not only do these luxurious conferences take place across the globe, but they also ended up consuming about half a year in total, or 10% of every year.

The gap between the political class and the American public couldn’t be wider, both materially and experientially. The same body that can’t even come together with a viable plan to fix our still-ailing economy have no qualms using (and abusing) the ample perks that come with their job — premium healthcare, pensions, and, of course, vacation time. Were it not so dysfunctional, and were not so many Americans increasingly struggling without such luxuries, I’d be less disgusted.

(Note, I know that this doesn’t apply to every Congressperson).

Our Unpopular Congress & What it Says About Politics

I’ll start this off by letting the following graph speak for itself:

Popularity of Congress


The unfortunate data may not be very surprising to most readers, as the sheer disgust and apathy towards our legislative body has pretty much become a canard in public discourse. Though Americans, like electorates everywhere, have always been cynical towards their public officials, it seems our collective sense of disconnection and discontent is at an unprecedented high (at least compared to recent history). Exhibit  B:

It’s not just the current Congress’s theatrics, pettiness, and partisanship that have turned us away from our ostensible representatives. After all, none of that is new – politics has always been a dirty business everywhere, even among our lionized Founding Fathers. The fact is, the 112th Congress – many of whose members will continue to serve in the newly established 113th – was the worst-performing in over 30 years, and by a considerable margin.

The last graph is courtesy of Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, who wrote an article listing 14 reasons why this is the worst Congress ever. Needless to say, it’s a pretty grim read.

But does all this public loathing of Congress come down to its mere ineffectualness? It may seem like a strange question to ask – of course we hate our public officials for being incompetent or pernicious. But Steven Mazie of BigThink, in a partial response to Klein’s article, raised an interesting observation – the preceding 111th Congress was more productive as far as lawmaking, but that didn’t seem to make much of a difference in terms of public affection:

 Approval ratings during 2009 and 2010 (the span of 111th Congress) were only marginally higher than in 2011 and 2012 (the 112th), and lag way behind 2004 levels, when at one point nearly half of Americans were satisfied with the job Congress was doing. So there must be something else at work, some deeper cause of our dissatisfaction.

Of course, comparing one Congress with its direct predecessor doesn’t give as big of a picture as I would like. What about previous Congresses? Did they show a similar lack of correlation between support and effectiveness? Either way, this raises a good point, one that may go to the heart of our political culture.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau might say that Congress has become more and more unpopular as Americans have begun to appreciate its basic illegitimacy as a law-making institution. For Rousseau, true political freedom is only found when each citizen is an active participant in the law-making process of a society. If people are to live harmoniously and autonomously, they must all have a direct role in public affairs. Voting for “representatives” to do the job for us is no substitute. In fact, it is a recipe for slavery.

Every law the people has not ratified in person is null and void— is, in fact, not a law. The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing. The use it makes of the short moments of liberty it enjoys shows indeed that it deserves to lose them.

Maybe we’re getting what we deserve after all these years of selling ourselves to our representatives in Congress. It’s difficult to imagine a viable alternative — other than in small, local experiments, direct democracy seems out of the question for the 311 million members of the American polity. One ironic possibility, which I develop at the Economist today, is to empower House members with longer terms in office. There is strong evidence that frequent elections only exacerbate the travesty of Washington’s legislative slug-fest.

In any case, Rousseau’s complaints about representative government have never rung so true. We elect Congress, and yet we hold cockroaches in higher esteem.

Had I the time, I’d weigh in on this rather prescient observation. I definitely think there’s truth to it: the average American is woefully disconnected from the political process. Few of us even bother to know who our direct representatives are, let alone how the political process we’re a part of actually functions. It’s easy to hate something you have no stake in, especially as it breeds an elitist class of detached public officials that seem evermore indifferent to you, if not predatory.

But would participation really make the difference? Would we not, for example, be cynical towards those among us who come to power through the participation of those who disagree with us? Is cynicism the inevitable by-product of politics in an information age where we know a lot more about what’s going on, including (if not especially) the bad. Though it’s a counter-factual that can never be determined, I wonder if politics would’ve been any less pessimistic had the body politic of the past been as (relatively) informed as we have?

Most importantly, I wonder if all this discontent and seething will actually amount to anything – and if so, whether the outlet will be productive and beneficial rather than destructive.


The Trespass Bill

It seems that our increasingly unpopular Congress is becoming ever more emboldened to undertake constitutionally specious legislation. Perhaps their 11% approval rating gives them the perception that they have little to lose anyway? Or maybe this comes to show just how out of touch our political elites really are from the people they purportedly represent – and the founding document they claim to abide by as if it were sacred. RT reports:

The US House of Representatives voted 388-to-3 in favor of H.R. 347 late Monday, a bill which is being dubbed the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011. In the bill, Congress officially makes it illegal to trespass on the grounds of the White House, which, on the surface, seems not just harmless and necessary, but somewhat shocking that such a rule isn’t already on the books. The wording in the bill, however, extends to allow the government to go after much more than tourists that transverse the wrought iron White House fence.

Under the act, the government is also given the power to bring charges against Americans engaged in political protest anywhere in the country.

Under current law, White House trespassers are prosecuted under a local ordinance, a Washington, DC legislation that can bring misdemeanor charges for anyone trying to get close to the president without authorization. Under H.R. 347, a federal law will formally be applied to such instances, but will also allow the government to bring charges to protesters, demonstrators and activists at political events and other outings across America.

The new legislation allows prosecutors to charge anyone who enters a building without permission or with the intent to disrupt a government function with a federal offense if Secret Service is on the scene, but the law stretches to include not just the president’s palatial Pennsylvania Avenue home. Under the law, any building or grounds where the president is visiting — even temporarily — is covered, as is any building or grounds “restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance.”

I understand the need for safety, given the times we live in. But these provisions seem both vague and excessive, and there haven’t been any recent incidents to suggest that we need this sort of tight security against routine protests. The fact that this bill has emerged during the aftermath of a spate of OWS demonstrations makes me question its motivation. To make matters worse, it’s far more applicable than it may initially seem:

In the text of the act, the law is allowed to be used against anyone who knowingly enters or remains in a restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so, but those grounds are considered any area where someone — rather it’s President Obama, Senator Santorum or Governor Romney — will be temporarily visiting, whether or not the public is even made aware. Entering such a facility is thus outlawed, as is disrupting the orderly conduct of “official functions,” engaging in disorderly conduct “within such proximity to” the event or acting violent to anyone, anywhere near the premises. Under that verbiage, that means a peaceful protest outside a candidate’s concession speech would be a federal offense, but those occurrences covered as special event of national significance don’t just stop there, either. And neither does the list of covered persons that receive protection.

In matters of law, this kind of openness to interpretation can be very troubling. We’ve seen so many attempts to reign in on our civil liberties – SOPA, PIPA, the NDAA, to name the most recent examples – that’s becoming frighteningly routine. What’s worse is that few Congressman of either party took issue with this bill, and the fact that even the stridently pro-Constitution GOP was overwhelmingly behind it smacks of both cruel irony and hypocrisy (not that Democrats are any less guilty).

Even if this bill doesn’t make it into law, given the remaining procedural channels that remain, the fact that we keep seeing these attempts is reason enough to worry – and be vigilant, given the notable lack of media attention on this so far. Clearly, people need to be made more aware of these things on their own accord, and show our politicians that we’re paying attention.

The Case of the Missing Martyrs

Since 9/11, there have been around 161 Muslim Americans that were suspects or perpetrators of domestic terrorism – out of a community of 2.5 to 7 million.

About 120 of these individuals were foiled with the help of tips or other assistance offered to law enforcement by fellow Muslims.

Also since 9/11, at least 11 Muslim Americans have killed 33 people – out of a total 150,000 Americans that have been murdered in that same span of time.

To read more on the subject, check out this rather in-depth study.

Granted, out of a community that represents 1% to almost 3% of the American population, the rate of terrorism is still higher than average, and thus something to be concerned about (though it’s declined precipitously since 2009). Furthermore, there is still the matter of Islamic extremism in other parts of the world, particularly in Pakistan, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan.

But domestically speaking, the reality of the situation doesn’t mesh with the public perception. Most Americans still believe that Muslim Americans are generally a major threat to the United States, including some of our congressmen. But the data makes it clear Muslims are far from a significant contributor to public safety issues. There are many more factors that are contributing to the deaths of nearly 15,000 Americans a year.