The non-government of the United States

The Thinker by Rodin

Govern: to exercise continuous sovereign authority over; especially: to control and direct the making and administration of policy in

Egypt is now a democracy, sort of, if democracy means letting the military govern a country for six months or so until elections can be held and if the military then actually cedes power to a real republic. Hoping for a democracy in Bahrain, oppressed Shi’ites attempted to create their Tahrir Square by occupying a traffic circle. The government there decided it had learned a lesson from Egypt’s protests: crack down fast and rule by violence, resulting in numerous deaths. Meanwhile, in Iran rabid Islamists want to try and execute protestors who recently demonstrated for more freedom there. The trend is the same: whether it is Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan or even the West Bank, the Muslim world wants freedom, democracy and government that executes the will of its people.

Freedom is good, but about that democracy thing: it is at best a mixed blessing. Just because you have a democracy doesn’t mean that those running it will choose to actually govern. So be careful what you wish for. Egyptians, you may find yourselves longing for a little honest oppression after you try governing yourselves as a republic, because it is often a very messy process. As we here in the United States can attest, republics sure aren’t all they are cracked up to be. In fact, they tend toward dysfunction, with parties jockeying endlessly for power using all means, fair, unfair and often illegal.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got— a republic or a monarchy?” He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Two hundred and twenty four years later, you have to look at the mess we call our republic and wonder if maybe a monarchy would have been an improvement. If we had a king, perhaps he could at least shame our Congress into doing its job. For if a government is to work, it has to actually govern.

Here in the United States, governing is so 20th century. Today, there is no guarantee that an agency will have an appropriated spending bill, even by the end of their fiscal year. Instead, you will get one continuing resolution after another, usually based on last year’s funding. CRs are Congress’ way of telling the nation it cannot do its job. This happens because we have elected a Congress of polarized people who put ideology ahead of governing. Congress is currently debating another continuing resolution to fund the government. If they cannot agree on one by March 4th, federal employees like me will be indefinitely furloughed. I had best stock up on paint, because apparently I will have plenty of time to paint in March. For if you can count on anything in Congress, it’s on Congress skirting its job.

In case you have forgotten, here is how it is supposed to work: all appropriation laws would be signed into law before October 1 so agencies can work from an approved spending plan. The plan is supposed to execute the desires of the American people, as expressed through compromise involving two houses of government. What often happens these days is the actual bill to fund the agency gets signed into law late in the year, then a twelve month plan hobbled by continuing resolutions all has to get executed in a couple of months. It’s crazy, but that’s American democracy at work for you.

So let’s do a status check for Fiscal Year 2011 to see how well gears of our old republic are turning. Today is February 18, 2011, nearly five months into the fiscal year that started October 1, 2010. How many FY 2011 appropriation bills have actually been signed into law? Zero. Okay, well, how many have passed the House? Two (military construction/veterans affairs and transportation, both in the last Congress.) How many have passed the Senate? Zero. I don’t know what they are doing in Congress, but governing is obviously not very high on their agenda. It’s like they forgot how to mark up bills in committee, vote for or against them on the floor and send them to a conference committee. Ironically, the new House started off the year with a reading of the constitution.

The only spending “bills” that have passed are four “continuing resolutions” funding the government at Fiscal Year 2010 levels until Congress decides to get around to this messy thing called legislating. Here’s the thing about continuing resolutions. They really aren’t authority to spend any money at all. Congress and the president just pretend they are. They are a resolution, which amounts to a wish or a promise. If they were an appropriation, they would have arrived as bills, and when enacted would become a public law. A CR is not a public law. A CR is basically Congress saying “We need some more time to work on the bills, so is it okay if agencies meanwhile spend money at this rate until it runs out on this date with no guidance from Congress?” By signing it, the president is saying, “Okay by me.” What is missing is any intent from Congress on how the money should be used. That’s the part that Congress is supposed to do but is not. It’s called legislating, also known as representatives and senators doing this thing called “work”.

It is looking increasingly probable that Fiscal Year 2011 will end with no appropriations bills signed into law at all because the House and Senate are controlled by different parties and neither are principled enough to meet in the middle. Instead, eighty-seven new Republicans in the House want to cut $60 billion from non-defense agencies, which somehow must be done by September 30. The Senate does not want to do it. CRs have become the fictional instrument to keep a dysfunctional government running. The House and Senate seem likely to continue at loggerheads indefinitely, potentially until the 2012 election. Maybe in 2013 Congress will get around to actually directing agencies on how to spend their money.

To all appearances, Congress seems suspended in gridlock with not even a hint that either house will move toward political compromise. If you ask me, we now have a republic in name only.