THE BLOG
01/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As Congress Lay Dying

The debate among progressive activists and commentators in recent weeks has tended to range from the leave-Obama-alone-and-he'll-fix- everything position to the stage-a-protest- at-Obama's-house-for-the-next-month position, including numerous stances in between those extremes. What all these positions share is acceptance of the incredible shift of power from Congress to the White House that we have seen in just the last eight years. It is in these concluding moments of the Bush-Cheney era that Congress's coffin is being constructed just outside our window, and I'm afraid that the peace and justice movement is picking flowers to bring to the funeral.

Congress is corrupted by money, media, and parties, and it has chosen its impotence. We've replaced a disastrous president with one who can't help but be in at least some ways dramatically better. Why in the world would we distract ourselves with worrying about Congress? The frightening reason is this: if we leave all power in the hands of the president, sooner or later all power will belong to someone even worse than Bush. The hopeful reason is this: the only possible path to truly transformative democratic change lies in re-empowering and reforming Congress. It may take some of us a few more months to consider the possibility of that. It may take us generations to prove it. The authors of the U.S. Constitution were closer to grasping it than we are.

Congress was supposed to write every law. The president can now ignore laws at his or her whim and rewrite new laws with signing statements. Congress was supposed to have the exclusive power to begin wars and the power to end wars. The president now does both and even negotiates treaties authorizing war without even obtaining Senate authorization of the treaties. Congress was supposed to raise and spend every dime. Now the White House simply invents or borrows trillions of dollars and gives it away without any pretense of authorization or oversight. The Iraq "Status of Forces Agreement" and the ongoing Wall Street "bailout" are eleventh hour nails in Congress's coffin.

What if the peace movement had not played dead for six months because there was an election coming, but instead had put some fraction of the time and energy and resources that went into the election into demanding that Congress not permit a treaty with Iraq without Congressional approval, and demanding a rejection of any treaty that extended the occupation? We're occupying and terrorizing a nation in the name of spreading democracy, yet that nation's legislature insisted on the right to vote and on the right of the nation's people to vote next summer on the new withdrawal agreement. This is the same model followed as we impose new "missile defense" bases on eastern Europe: those who have a voice are our president and the legislatures of our imperial outposts, but not our own legislature, much less the residents of the "homeland."

What if we learned that over $8.4 trillion was being looted from our grandchildren and given to some of those who least need it, and reacted appropriately? That much money could have been spent differently. Our government could have given almost $30,000 to every man, woman, and child in the country. Would you invest a thousand dollars in time and travel to lobby Congress to take back its power and our money, in exchange for taking a $30,000 check home? There's no reason we can't do that this month and have a much merrier holiday season. All that's required is that enough of us remember that Congress still exists and that our role is to tell it what to do. Washington, D.C., is on most maps; I'll meet on you the hill where the big white dome is.

Only one nail remains to be hammered home, and we may never again hear from the first branch of our late republic. Both James Madison and George Mason wanted the impeachment power placed in the Constitution in case a president ever pardoned someone for a crime he was in any way involved with, much less a crime he authorized, much less the crime of obstructing an investigation into a crime committed by the president, much less a direct self-pardon. I didn't go to law school, but anyone who did who argues that the pardon power includes the right to commit the same offense the impeachment power was created to counter deserves their money back.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler and Senator Russ Feingold and several good columnists and even some ordinarily awful editorial boards have spoken against the possibility of Bush pardoning crimes he authorized, but these voices have all falsely conceded that Bush can do this if he chooses before asking him not to. He cannot, and Congress is not powerless to stop him. House Members should sign onto Nadler's resolution to raise awareness of the issue but should not stop there. Congress members should pursue impeachment immediately for the commutation of Libby's sentence, pass a bill criminalizing the pardoning of crimes the president authorized or committed, if necessary pass of a bill to propose amending the Constitution to clarify that obvious point, and join with courts and the president elect in announcing that any such pardons will not be honored.

Congress contracted its potentially fatal illness in May 2006 when Nancy Pelosi stripped the impeachment power out of the Constitution, and has since then been bed-ridden. Nearly six years of Republican rubber-stampism had weakened both houses. Decades of power drift had created huge vulnerabilities, but the last two years have been a breaking point. Rather than impeaching, Congress members pretended to investigate known and possible crimes. When subpoenas were rejected and even witnesses who appeared refused to answer questions, Congress did not imprison anyone (as it indisputably has the power to do), but pointlessly asked the executive branch to enforce its subpoenas. In January, the Justice Department might honor such requests, but Congress appears poised to retract them and encourage us all to forget they ever existed.

Congress has grown unpleasant in its illness, and many will not lament its passing, but democratic representation will die with it. We will be very sorry to see it go, even if we won't know what we've lost till it's gone.