A centennial review

Note: I have been working on this post for a while but in recent weeks some of my long held beliefs about government have been tested. So I reserve the right to argue with myself in later posts ;-). If you accept the premise that government should exist and that democracy is a legitimate form of government and an improvement over other previous forms, then what follows will hold together. It remains to be seen whether I will accept all of those assumptions moving forward. I just put too much though into this to not post it…..even if later I decide I’m wrong. Like all thing, this is just a snapshot in time.
As I drove in to work this morning, I heard a report about the latest presidential and congressional approval numbers. You can look at the charts, but the next is that less than half of the population thinks the president is doing a good job and less than 1 in 5 think that congress is doing a good job. One thing I have learned when dealing with metrics its easy to get lost in the numbers, especially if you haven’t taken the time to ask the right question. Is the right question “What do you think of the job that the President / Congress is doing”? I think a more interesting question is “Is the President/ Congress doing the job they were hired to do? The job that is in their job description?” To me that is a much more realistic way to evaluate performance – it’s what we do every year in the corporate world during annual review time. So let’s do a centennial review of the office of the president and congress – their performance against their job description over the last 100 years.
First up, the big honcho: El Presidente. So what is the president’s job? It’s a simple question with a complex answer. The original job description is in Article 2 of the Constitution. If you are not into reading, or clicking links, here are some of the highlights:

  • Section 1 covers things like the 4 year term, the electoral college, the timing of the election, the citizenship requirement, some pay rules, and the oath of office.
  • Section 2 appoints the office as commander in chief of the armed forces, gives the power of pardon and confers the responsibilities to create treaties (subject to 2/3rds approval by congress) and appoint ambassadors.
  • Section 3 says that a state of the union must be delivered “from time to time” and that “in extraordinary occasions” can convene and adjourn both houses of congress.
  • Section 4 spells out the four reasons that the president can loose their job.

Seems pretty straightforward. There has to be more to it than that, though, right? Applying my best Google-fu, I found a few more “modern” job descriptions:

  • One from ushistory.org which says: “As leader of the executive branch, the President is primarily responsible for seeing that the work of government is done.” OK then.
  • And another from scholastic.com which says “The Constitution assigns the president two roles: chief executive of the federal government and Commander in Chief of the armed forces.” I think that’s what I said already.

So how well is the president doing? Based on the job they have been given, pretty well I think. To be clear, I’m not referring specifically to the current holder of the office, Barack Obama, although he is certainly in the mix, but rather a composite at all the men that have held the office over the last 100 years or so. Elections have been held every 4 years and the electoral college has functioned as designed. All the presidents have been citizens (sorry, I don’t buy into the birther BS sideshow) and they all took pretty much the same oath of office. They have certainly acted as commander in chief and some have exercised their powers of pardon. They have met with foreign dignitaries, initiated treaties and appointed ambassadors. I can’t remember a lengthy period of time without a state of the union (they seem to be every year although I know that hasn’t always been the case). And some have (almost) lost their jobs for some of the reasons listed.
I am struggling to find a part of their job that they aren’t doing? Even the fairly expansive view of the presidents job held by ushistory.org (“seeing that the work of government is done”) is hard to argue that they don’t at least try to accomplish.
On to the other whipping boy in the approval ratings popularity contest: the upper and lower houses of parliament congress. The initial job description for them is Article 1 of the constitution. (I’ve always wondered if there was some hidden meaning in the fact that Congress is number 1 and the President is Number 2…). Since the congress consists of more people and was supposed to be the true representatives of the people in our system of government, there are more sections describing their duties and limits – 10 in all, but section 8 is the real meat of the job description is in Section 8. Again the highlights is you don’t want to read or click:

  • Collect taxes, duties and excises
  • Borrow money
  • Regulate foreign commerce
  • Coin money and regulate the value thereof
  • Establish post office and post roads
  • Raise and support and army and navy (I guess the Air Force is unconstitutional 😉
  • Declare War
  • Make all laws

I can find a few things here where they have fallen down on the job (again, congress as a whole over the last 100 years…not the current congress specifically). They are really good at the whole collecting taxes thing. Even better at borrowing money. There seem to be plenty of import/export laws, so I guess their performance there is adequate. Money is getting coined, but their delegation to the fed has had a sever and negative impact on it’s value. One red mark for congress there. The post office is still in operation (for now) so we can’t ding them on that too much. We have a hell of an Army and Navy/Marines (I guess the Air Force is OK too…not sure about the Coast Guard) so they get a gold star here. They have declared most of the wars we have been involved in. And they make plenty of laws. So the presidents get a 5 out of 5 and congress only gets a 4 because of the whole money / inflation thing. Still nothing that deserves only 1 out of 5 people thinking they are doing a good job.
I can hear you now yelling back at me through the series of tubes that is the interet: “It’s not the things in the Constitution that are the issue! It’s all the extra-Constitutional things that the president and congress do!” I agree with you. But who’s job is it to make sure that they do only their job – that they stay in their constitutionally defined box? The guys that wrote and signed the constitution (I also refuse to buy into the “founding fathers” BS historical fiction) thought of that and created the third branch of government, the judicial as the primary means of making sure that the president and congress only did their job as it was defined in the constitution. It was a nice idea, but over the last 100 years hasn’t worked out so well. For a variety of reasons, well explained in a book by Boston T Party or in a recent podcast by Dan Carlin, if any of the three branches of government should be given a bad performance review, it’s the guys and gals in the funny black dresses. But this would be a hard performance review to make stick if it were appealed. Take a look at Article 3 of the the constitution and see if you can find anything as clear as was in the first two sections in spelling out the job of the judicial branch? It talks a lot about how they should do their job, but neglects to ever really spell out what the job actually is. The closes it gets is to say the need to be “judicial”. That’s helpful.
We have to look further than just the courts if we are going to have a full understanding of who is accountable for letting the office of the president and the congress do more than they are supposed to. The blame also falls on two other groups: the media…and all the rest of us (citizens, people of the US, subjects…pick your favorite label). It’s amazing to me that the media is still able to function as a commercial venture when no one that I know thinks that they do a good job. While not specifically named in the constitution (other than the protections afforded them by the 1st amendment), it was well understood by the guys that wrote and signed the constitution that the so called 4th estate would be an important part of the American system of government. They would help educate the population on the issues of the day, feed constructive debate and provide sunlight into the darker inner workings of the government machine. Instead we get “news” about who’s having who’s baby this week, the latest fad diet and complete silence on everything from suspicious contracts in the Middle East during wartime to the killing of Americans on foreign soil. Fail, fail, fail. The so called “alternative media” is growing on the decaying trunk of a once great institution that produced reporters like Murrow, Woodward and Bernstein.
And then there’s us…you and me. If we are honest we have to give ourselves a failing grade too. While our job as citizens isn’t written down in the articles of the constitution, it’s clear we haven’t been doing it. We’ve traded the hard work of forming values and principles for being led by the nose. We’ve skipped over debates about substance for shouting matches and labels. We’ve allowed some driven by malice, but most floating in stupidity, to make decisions for us. We’ve allowed ourselves to stay children for too long. Children can only be taken care of for so long before they have to grow up, move out and fend for themselves. If we want to hold those that work for us accountable, we have to hold ourselves accountable first. Do your job well first – then you have the moral authority to give the bad performance review and hold people accountable.






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