20 Years Later

On this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I can’t help but remember that fateful day. Although two decades have passed, the memories of the burning, smoking towers, watching the TV news and seeing the planes converted into missiles to achieve the murderous goals of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and feeling that the whole world was turned upside down, are still fresh and painful. As that terrible morning of shock and horror ended, we were able to go pick up the kids from school, and one of my lasting memories from that day was the immense feeling of relief at getting the kids into the car and bringing them home, where our family could all be together and we could be sure that all of us were safe and secure. I’ll never forget that feeling.

Twenty years is a long time, and today is a time for reflection. A lot has happened in the years since the attacks. America is still here, of course, but there is no doubt that the country has changed in the interim. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. A shock like 9/11 is bound have some long-term consequences, like a colossal rock thrown into a pond causes ripples that ultimately touch every part of the pond’s shoreline. The key point now, in my view, is to focus on where we go from here. The war in Afghanistan is over, and obviously it ended badly. How does the country respond to that reality, and will we finally learn the hard lessons that we have been taught at the cost of twenty years of fighting, thousands of American lives, and billions, if not trillions, of dollars? Or will we forget those lessons the next time a tragedy tempts a President to take the country into another foreign adventure?

And more fundamentally, where is our country headed as a free, democratic society? Just this week President Biden announced that an administrative agency is working on an emergency regulation that is designed to affect the jobs and livelihoods of tens of millions of people who have made a choice to remain unvaccinated and the companies that employ them. Those of us who remember the Schoolhouse Rock song about the process of how a bill becomes a law wonder how in the world the President can presume to exercise such extraordinary power without hearings, amendments, and ultimately a law passed by Congress that specifically authorizes such sweeping action. But in the years since 9/11, we’ve gotten used to Presidents ordering deadly drone strikes, changing policies set by prior administrations, and imposing new obligations with the stroke of a pen.

In a way, has the long road that began with 9/11 led us to this point, where Presidents feel they can unilaterally exercise such vast powers, without the checks and balances that we learned about in Civics class? And, however we may feel about the best way to deal with the COVID pandemic (and for the record, I’m vaccinated), are we comfortable with a form of government where the executive branch, and in many instances unelected administrative agencies, wield all of the power and can issue emergency decrees that would have profound impacts on the lives (and bodies) of millions of Americans, without Congress, as the collective representatives of American citizens and our diverse communities, having voted to require that course of action, set the structure for how the action will occur, established the rules, and determined the penalties for non-compliance? The likelihood that the Supreme Court undoubtedly will ultimately have its say doesn’t make up for the fact that Congress, which was intended to be the primary instrument of government, has withered into insignificance and plays no role in debating and setting such important national policies.

It’s a lot to think about on a quiet Saturday morning, 20 years after a shocking day that we will never forget. But 20 years provides some perspective, and anniversaries are good times for reflection.

The Curious Concept Of “Clean” Continuing Resolutions

Many states have constitutional provisions that require any bill to be limited to a single subject.  The provisions are motivated by “good government” notions — if legislation can only address one subject, legislators and the public will be better informed about the contents of bills, there will be no opportunity to slip hidden, extraneous provisions into bills, and there will be less vote-trading and log-rolling.

Contrast the “single-subject” concept with Congress’ increasing use of a “continuing resolution” — that is, a single bill that funds the entire federal government, from stem to stern, from Department of Defense to the National Park Service to the Houses of Congress, through one up-or-down vote.  With the federal government facing another debt ceiling and funding crisis, President Obama and others are talking about a “clean” continuing resolution, but in reality there’s not much that is “clean” about continuing resolutions.

As we all remember from high school civics and Schoolhouse Rock, Congress is supposed to hold hearings and committee meetings, draft specific appropriations bills for the different departments of the federal government, and send them to the President for his signature or veto.  Such a process allows for the kind of careful, thoughtful evaluation of programs that the Constitution envisions.  But careful, thoughtful evaluation is hard work, and tough votes can upset potential campaign contributors.  That’s why, in recent decades, Congress and the President have resorted more and more to continuing resolutions — to the point where omnibus continuing resolutions have become the primary mechanism of federal spending.

It’s a lazy, terrible way to run a government.  Continuing resolutions are an avoidance mechanism and the ultimate form of log-rolling.  Congress and the President get to shirk the hard work of examining individual departments and being held accountable for votes on whether a particular agency deserves more or less money or whether a specific program should be continued or ended.  Instead, they get to shrug and talk about simply casting one vote to fund the entire federal government.  Pet programs get rolled in with essential government services, and the testimony of the heads of spy agencies is cited to justify a vote that also funds every boondoggle, benefits program, and construction project.

People wring their hands about waste, fraud, and abuse in the individual programs of the federal government.  Continuing resolutions ensure that we’ll never meaningfully address that topic.  So don’t talk to me about “clean” continuing resolutions.  It’s an inherently dirty device.

Suffering From Self-Inflicted Wounds

I think one reason that President Obama’s job approval ratings have fallen over recent months is that his actions often indicate that he and his staff simply do not pay attention to the basics.  When the nuts and bolts appear to be neglected, questions about competence and credibility inevitably will arise.

Consider the President’s recent jobs proposal.  He used a repeated “pass this bill right away” mantra in his speech to reflect the urgency of the unemployment problem.  There’s nothing wrong with that, obviously — for people outside the Beltway, the lack of jobs is an urgent problem and has been an urgent problem for years.  Unfortunately, the President’s ability to effectively convey that urgency is undercut by his not having a bill drafted, and introduced by congressional allies, on the day he gave the speech.  Even now, days later, the “jobs bill” still has not been finally reduced to writing, much less introduced in either House of Congress.  Similarly, despite the President’s statement that the jobs bill is fully paid for, the legislation to achieve that result also has not been drafted or introduced.

Whatever your position may be on the merits of the President’s jobs proposals, these failures are self-inflicted wounds that hurt the chances that the President’s proposals will pass.  By saying “pass this bill right away” when no bill exists, the President is handing opponents an obvious, easily understood “talking point” response.  More fundamentally, the President’s failure to have actual bills at the ready also demonstrates a certain tone-deafness.  In two prior legislative battles, on the initial “stimulus” package and the President’s health care proposal, the actual drafting of the legislation was an afterthought, whereas any American who ever watched Schoolhouse Rock knows that the bill should be the first step in the process.  The stimulus package and the health care legislation turned out to be sprawling monstrosities with special-interest provisions buried in hundreds of pages of legislative text, passed without adequate scrutiny.  The President’s failure to have a written jobs plan bill already written and available for public review just raises the prospect of the same flawed process being followed again — with special interests busily working, even now, to get their pet provisions included.

The fact that President Obama has done this, again, when a different course easily could have been followed this time suggests either that he and his staff have not learned from their earlier mistakes — or that they don’t even consider them to be mistakes.  I’m not sure which of those two scenarios is more harmful to his standing with American voters.