09/02/2013 06:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Congress' Labor Daze

President Obama, it seems, has confounded congressional Republicans by giving them exactly what they asked for, on the subject of Syria. "Consult Congress!" they bellowed last week, full of constitutional righteousness. "OK, let's have a vote," Obama responded. Now the cry, from at least one, is "Obama is hiding behind Congress!"

Sigh. Seems like they're against whatever Obama's for, but that's not exactly a new thing, is it?

To be fair, the Syria issue is not a cut-and-dried partisan thing, so giving in to the snarky urge in that first paragraph is not totally justified. There are anti-war Democrats, there are pro-war Democrats, and there are Republicans equally all over the map on the issue. So it's really a problem with Congress as a whole rather than just one party. Also, that's not even what I wanted to talk about this Labor Day, so let's just start over, shall we?


Congress -- even in a good year -- barely works. That can be taken (equally correctly) either as "barely functions" or "barely ever shows up for work." In a pathetically unproductive year (this Congress is on track to be the least productive Congress since records were kept), this should already have become painfully obvious to all.

Consider the fact that the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom, as late as last Thursday, had not only convinced itself exactly how we were going to strike Syria, but also when we were going to attack (the consensus: Obama had to strike before he flies off to St. Petersburg for an international meeting). As happens with regularity, the inside-the-Beltway consensus was wrong. President Obama didn't get their memo, or something.

But rather than discussing the pros and cons of striking Syria today, we have to point out something which should be glaringly obvious even inside the Beltway, but will likely get short shrift -- namely, that Congress will be continuing their fifth week of vacation rather than returning to Washington to vote on whether America should go to war or not.

As you can see, we'll have an entire week or more to discuss the morality and realpolitik of striking Syria, because no vote will happen before -- at the earliest -- next Monday. Because, once again, Congress needs a fifth week of vacation before they drag their mostly-useless carcasses back to Washington to attempt to do the nation's business. Even when that business is deciding the question of war.

If Congress were capable of acting quickly in an emergency [pause for riotous laughter], they would have all flown back to D.C. in the middle of last week, held a hasty vote on whether to strike Syria or not, and then they would have been able to fly back out of town to still enjoy their fifth week of vacation this week. Don't believe it? The British managed to do exactly that (Parliament was likewise on vacation).

Some might point out that things didn't turn out so well in Britain, despite their speed. Parliament, after all, voted down the Prime Minister's request for war authorization -- the first time they've done so in something like two centuries. So maybe having to cut their vacations short annoyed members of David Cameron's party so much that they handed him a political loss in retaliation. I can easily see -- easily -- members of the United States Congress acting in such a petulant fashion, so perhaps Obama was right not to call them back to work.

But still, it's going to be hard for the media to ignore the intervening week between Obama announcing he wants a vote in Congress and Congress actually being in town to hold such a vote. Perhaps the media will also notice that, for the months of August and September, Congress has scheduled exactly nine days in session. That's not even two full work weeks, out of two whole months of time. And that, my friends, is nothing short of pathetic.

Consider what is on their plate, in this time period, in addition to deciding the monumental question of war: the entire federal budget. The Senate has passed a budget, the House has passed a budget, and yet no compromise is even currently being worked on to reconcile the two into the individual appropriations bills which must be passed by the first of October, or the federal government shuts down. House Republicans couldn't even agree among themselves over a farm bill, before they all fled the city for their five-week vacation. Congress will be forced to fall back on the gigantic lie of "there just isn't time" and pass some sort of omnibus continuing resolution, and punt the ball down the road for a few months. There may be an enormous fight over Obamacare during this process. Immediately following will come the deadline of the debt ceiling, in mid-October. Cue up more dysfunction and "round two" of the Obamacare funding fight. This will all guarantee another round of fiscal bickering, probably to coincide with the end of the calendar year.

Also to be pushed aside during September will be the huge battle over immigration reform. There just "won't be time" to have this important debate in the House, I confidently predict. This really isn't going out on a limb, because House Republicans have been trying the Big Stall on immigration all year long. "We won't pass the Senate bill, even though it probably has enough votes in the House to pass," say the Republicans, "because we're going to come up with our own bills instead." Which have not, as yet, appeared. Because, you know, "there just wasn't time."

A quick constitutional review: two of the bedrock duties Congress is charged with are passing an annual federal budget and deciding whether America goes to war or not. Congress has largely abdicated the war responsibility to the White House since roughly World War II, but this has never stopped them from demanding to be involved in the process. President Obama surprised them by agreeing, on Syria. Congress shrugged, and said: "We'll think about it in 10 days or so... now how about another round of Mai Tais, everyone?!?" The budget deadlines are written in stone, so there's simply no excuse for not scheduling enough time for debating the issues, but Congress will only be in session a pathetic nine days this month, after taking all of last month off.

This will never become a big issue inside the Beltway until it becomes a big issue outside the Beltway. Until "We The People" demand more of our elected officials, it is never going to happen. A populist backlash can indeed work, as it did in the 1980s and 1990s over the subject of congressional pay raises. When people get angry, Congress eventually notices. Or they get voted out in favor of people who do notice.

But for people to get angry, they have to notice how seldom Congress actually shows up to work. Which is why it's a good subject for Labor Day. On this single day off for the American worker, perhaps the media will begin to point out (and continue to do so, over the next week) that Congress can't even be bothered to cut their five-week vacation short when America is contemplating an act of war. Congress won't be voting on Syria until (at the earliest) next Monday. There is absolutely no reason for this delay other than "I'd like one more week of relaxing on a beach and/or fundraising before I have to do my actual job." After the war vote (no matter which way it goes), we will then be told that "there just isn't time" to finish the federal budget before October begins.

Well, you know what? That's nonsense. There is, indeed, plenty of time. There has always been enough time. It's not the time factor, it is how you choose to use the time. Which is why I decided to work on Labor Day myself -- to point out what should be painfully and shockingly obvious, even to people inside the Beltway. Nine days' work for a period of two months is simply not acceptable. It wouldn't even be acceptable if we weren't contemplating a war, or even if Congress had already completely wrapped up this year's budget. There are a lot of things Congress should be working on this month, and nine days falls laughably short of the effort required to address these issues.

But remember, nothing will ever change unless people get upset about this sorry state of affairs and demand better from their civil servants. The only way Congress will ever change is through heaping all the shame upon them that they truly deserve. Whenever congressional leadership pleads: "There just isn't time," they need to hear the forceful response of: "There is time! How about earning your pay, for once? Nine working days is not enough! Get to work, you slackers!"

Happy Labor Day, everyone.


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