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Marty Robins Headshot

Butt Out, Congress!

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Does Congress ever learn... to butt out of things that aren't its business? This may sound like a rhetorical question, but it's actually a very serious one that needs to be answered if we are ever going to restore public confidence in our leadership, which is essential to economic recovery. Unfortunately at the moment, the answer appears to be 'no,' and by writing this, I am hoping that readers will communicate this concerns to their own senators and representatives.

What prompts this concern? Very recent events in seemingly unrelated fields such as football and legislative/executive relations. We are hearing a great deal of noise from Republicans as to their effort to hold Attorney General Holder in contempt of Congress over his testimony, or lack thereof, as to what went wrong with Operation Fast and Furious. To be clear, I have little use for Mr. Holder, and view him as one of our worst AG's of all time. Fast and Furious is yet another in a series of missteps by him, one which has caused him to achieve the seemingly impossible objective of making Alberto Gonzalez look good. However, I see no public benefit from this effort at this time.

With only about six months left in President Obama's first term, this effort seems like useless grandstanding by Republicans. Mr. Holder is obviously not going to change his approach at this time. If the president is re-elected, and indicates a desire to reappoint Mr. Holder, it would make perfect sense to address his contempt for the law, as yours truly did early in his term. However, I think this is unlikely, even for this president. Of course, if Governor Romney wins the election, the point is altogether moot. The linked WSJ article above indicates the expectation of all concerned that he will be out of office by January in all events.

Given the likelihood of Mr. Holder being out of office in six months, it makes no sense for Republicans to instigate a confrontation over the extent of executive privilege. This confrontation does nothing to bring about better governance, which is supposed to be what Congress is there for. It seems like a naked attempt to harass the administration.

Of course, this meddling is not confined to one side of the aisle. Only about a day after the conclusion of the second senseless prosecution of former baseball player Roger Clemens, nominally for perjury in congressional testimony, but ultimately for alleged steroid use, we are treated to Sen. Durbin of Illinois addressing concussions among National Football League players.

These players may well have a sound legal claim against the league, but what does this have to do with promotion of the general welfare? The players are well-equipped to pursue and are pursuing their legal claims. No one outside the league is at all impacted by the topic, so why is Sen. Durbin weighing in on an entirely private dispute?

For that matter, why did Congress demand testimony from Mr. Clemens and other players about steroid use? What does this have to do with anything within Congress' purview? We have and have always had a baseball commissioner to handle such things. Even assuming Mr. Clemens did lie to Congress, what threat did this present to anyone? While we need to discourage perjury, prosecutorial resources are limited, and it seems to make sense to use them to address situations which present a clear threat to the citizenry as a whole, such as terrorism and other violent crime, on the Mexican border and elsewhere. Again, all of this smacks of egos and personal vendettas dominating public policy making.

Even when Congress tries to address topics that do impact everyone, such as stability of the banking system, they pick the wrong fight. I'm speaking of the inquiry into trading losses at JPMorgan. Yes, they were the result of a monumental screw-up at the bank. However, it had no more affect upon the public than the misguided change in pricing policy at Netflix or the introduction of New Coke.

The errors at JPMorgan imposed no costs upon the public; the bank's capital is many times the amount at issue. It makes sense for Congress to get involved when a private sector decision imposes or even arguably threatens to impose significant costs on the economy as a whole. When it gets involved when this is not even remotely the case, it undermines its credibility when it is needed to deal with the more serious problems.

For example, if no action is taken by Congress, there will be a large tax increase on January 1, 2013, as the extension of Bush-era rates expires. Arguments can be made for and against allowing this to happen, but it is profoundly disturbing for Congress to be largely ignoring the issue and involving itself in these sorts of peripheral matters.

At present, we are dealing with an exceedingly sluggish economic recovery. While many factors (including the pending 'tax cliff') contribute to the sluggishness, I suggest that waning confidence in our leadership is an important factor. We'll all be better off if readers communicate to their senators and representatives their frustration with this meddling.

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