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Congress shows us how our new government works

14 April 2008

History shows that the superficial forms of government remain long after the essentials have changed. For example, the Roman Empire retained the forms of the Republic long after the Republic’s death. Public policy experts, being so close to the object of their study, can be the last to see that a new regime has been born.

So it is with Winslow T. Wheeler. An expert on defense issues after 3 decades working with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office. Author of  The Wastrels of Defense, he now directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

The US government that he knows has changed, right before his eyes. He sees the new order but does not recognize it. Just like us. His review of the The Petraeus / Crocker Hearings (Counterpunch, 8 April 2008) makes this evident.

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It had all the panoply of a modern congressional hearing and what we have come to expect from senators confronting important witnesses. We saw:

  • Speeches parading as questions.
  • Staff prepared questions read off, again and again; no matter what the answer.
  • Asking a non-question and sternly demanding a specific response.
  • Platitudes pretending to be questions.
  • Failure-to-launch oversight.
  • Studied posing as president-to-be.
  • Desperate grasp for political cover poorly disguised as a question.

Throughout all this palaver — I can’t say “questioning” because no real questions were asked — there were no answers that advanced our knowledge of what is going on in Iraq.

… After all, the “questioners” were clearly not after information; they were after political advancement or protection. I f they were after information, they are gross incompetents.

Wheeler’s outrage is unwarranted, or perhaps nostalgia for a past era. Our representatives in Congress are experienced professionals. Princes both in Washington and at home, the competition for their jobs is fierce. These hearings do not demonstrate their incompetence. The Committee was not seeking information, not for their themselves or for us. That is like askingfor justice from Stalin’s show trials. It might have happened occasionally, but was not the purpose of the event.

The role of Congress has changed. Our representatives now function more as Tribunes than as law-makers.

  1. They act as ombudsmen between the government and the people (no longer fully citizens). Mostly the powerful, but even the proles get assistance on a low level.
  2. They act as magistrates, holding hearings on past events to judge both the policies and the key actors (both public and private). Playing mock judge is much safer for one’s career than setting policy.
  3. They divide the spoils of government among America’s powerful special interest groups. Business, labor unions, government agencies, non-governmental organizations (a misnomer, mostly representatives for powerful interests) — both foreign and domestic. Spoils include government money, tax policy, and how to apply (or lift) the government’s omnipresent heavy hand of regulation.

The changing role of Congress is a small part of a larger evolution, as we slide from being citizens to subjects. We have the tools to govern ourselves, but have lost the will to use them. As I said in Forecast: Death of the American Constitution:

At some point in our future the Constitution seems likely to become a purely procedural document, much like that of the former Soviet Union, and equally effective at preserving our liberties. Our rights will exist only on the sufferance of the government and our ruling elites. This is already true in the UK, as their “unwritten constitution” protecting the “rights of Englishmen” has blown away like smoke in the wind.

Eventually the American people will recognize the new regime. How will we react? There are solutions, but not the kind loved by technocrats. Reform probably requires changing the relationship of citizens to the regime. That is, changes in how we think and act, seeing ourselves as citizens, not consumers. Not only might technocratic fixes — new policies and programs — not work, they might exacerbate the underlying problem.

I recommend reading Christian Meier’s “Caesar” to see where this leads. He describes how by late Republic times the Roman people had lost the will to govern themselves. As always, volunteers appeared to take on the job.

Other posts in this series about America, how we got here and how we can recover it

  1. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
  2. Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
  3. A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
  4. Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
  5. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  6. A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
  7. The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
  8. We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
  9. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
  10. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
  11. Fixing America: elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
  12. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  13. Fixing America: solutions — elections, revolt, passivity, 18 August 2008
  14. The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008

For all posts on this subject see America – how can we reform it?.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Robert Petersen permalink
    14 April 2008 10:34 am

    It is strange: This was supposed to be the era of “End of History” like Fukuyama predicted, but a lot of quite different things actually happened: Yes, democracy prevailed despite two world wars and a cold war, but it was also gradually diluted by populism and cronyism. The sad thing is that democracy – until now – has proven to be the only system to stand effectively against abuse of power. It can’t prevent abuse (remember Nixon?) and it can’t prevent the rise of speciel interest groups that works largely outside the democracy (Blackwater, CIA, Pentagon). But it is still the best thing we got.

    I suppose the conclusion is pretty obvious. Unless democracy is reformed (rather than spreaded to countries like Iraq) it will fail in the long run. Just like communism it will be regarded as a great idea, that unfortunately didn’t work out. That also means it is only a question of time before alternatives will arise. They will perhaps claim to be democrats, but they will for all intents and purposes be anything else but that.

    Not with a bang but with a whimper…

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  2. 14 April 2008 1:01 pm

    I am shocked, shocked to discover that congresspeople use hearings as political podiums to advance their own careers.

    I’m not sure that there are any congressional hearings at which I’ve been at or heard about that have not featured these characteristics. Everything that is necessary for legislature is prepared by the staffers, developed in small committees, and inserted into bills. All the talking before cameras is just stage effects. This is not news. It’s sad, but not news.
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    Fabius Maximus: It is not a new development, in the sense of happening yesterday. However, Congress played a different role within our lifetimes, such as the Fulbright’s Senate Foreign policy hearings about the Vietnam War (1966 – 1971), or the 1973 Church Committee hearings about the CIA? Those has substantial affects on both public opinion and public policy.
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    More important, it is one aspect of a larger evolution that is both unrecognized and important (described above).

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  3. 14 April 2008 1:30 pm

    One key difference between Rome and the USA is that Rome was using robust technology and was insulated by hundreds of hectares of open space, to be crossed by slow boats or slower feet.

    The USA is using brittle, high-tech measures and is connected to fast transportation. Rome managed to keep its power from (roughly) 49 B.C. to 410 A.D. How long will the USA maintain its momentum?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Do we have foes seeking to invade the US with military forces? If so, which I doubt, we spend as much as the rest of the world combined on Defense. Inadequate military defenses — whether technological, geographic, or brute force — is not high on my list of things to worry about.

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  4. Mikyo permalink
    14 April 2008 1:57 pm

    Oh no! Not ANOTHER whacko conspiracy theory! “Project Update“, William Rivers Pitt, truthout (14 April 2008)
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    Fabius Maximus: Reads to me like a sober history of the “Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a right-wing organization originally formed by William Kristol, Republican pundit and son of neoconservative movement founder Irving Kristol, and by long-time GOP think-tanker Gary Schmitt.”
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    One can disagree with their views and aims, but not their effort to influence US public policy. I thought that was our right and duty as US citizens.

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  5. Mikyo permalink
    14 April 2008 2:02 pm

    Gay S&M porn, from the New York Times, and our so-called Department of Defense: “Abu Ghraib“, The New Yorker (24 March 2008)

    How much is the download? Any nude women or kids?

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  6. 14 April 2008 2:31 pm

    In addition to Meier’s “Caesar” I actually got a lot more from Colleen McCullough’s novels about the latter days of the Roman Republic (seven volumes now!) starting with Gaius Marius’ first year as Consul, and ending with the suicide of Cleopatra. She worked very hard to get her facts straight (especially when she disagrees with standard interpretations) and I have learned a lot.
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    I really like the insight that our elected legislators are now functioning as Tribunes of the Plebs rather than as legislators. . . explains much! (What they don’t have, of course, is the veto power)
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    By the way, I am not the same person as the “Robert Petersen” who posted first above; we spell our last name differently.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: More important, are you Peter George Peterson?

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  7. plato's cave permalink
    14 April 2008 4:41 pm

    I agree with the commenter who says the shift to “tribunal” status is nothing new. At wht point our earlier history were legislators ever the representatives of anyone other than the propertied class — “the right people” in the founder’s words.

    The “right people” are not simply a single class, with one set of interests and one agenda, but rather a crowd of special interests jostling together, compromising when necessary, hoping to gain relative advantage. This is the view of Madison in the 10th Fed paper. The national government is the place where these battles are fought. It is not a place where the interests of the people –“the many” in the founder’s words — are considered.

    Fabius’ confidence that the people could regain their democracy, “if they only have the will”, seems to me naive. I think the best we can hope for, at this moment, is that a saner, more cautious segment of the propertied class eventually regains control from the current lunatic fringe. Then we might return to what Michael Parenti calls “Democracy of the Few.”
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    Fabius Maximus: I always find interesting the believers in Zeno’s paradox — that movement is impossible. It sounds good, but is of course absurd. Change, evolution, is the essence of life — and therefore of history.
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    I gave two examples of valuable Congressional hearings that both gave us new information and had a powerful influence on public opinion — and could have listed many more. The last was 1973. Any suggestions of such hearings in the last five years? Ten years?
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    As for faith being “naive”… faith is always naive when it is mosted needed.

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  8. Greg Lehmann permalink
    14 April 2008 5:43 pm

    Maybe this is the way corporate America wants it. Perhaps a dysfunctional congress, an enhanced executive, and a conservative court system is the most efficient, profitable way to run a country. All those corporate donors are not giving all that PAC money out of the goodness of their hearts.

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  9. 14 April 2008 11:53 pm

    “One can disagree with their views and aims, but not their effort to influence US public policy. I thought that was our right and duty as US citizens.”
    “Perhaps a dysfunctional congress, an enhanced executive, and a conservative court system is the most efficient, profitable way to run a country.”
    One CAN indeed condemn any attempt to influence US public policy that seeks to destroy the country for the short-term profit of an oligarchy or privileged minority.

    It is a duty of each American to be involved with America, not to “wreck it and run” with the ill-gotten gains.

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  10. 15 April 2008 1:22 am

    I have added a quote from my post “Forecast: Death of the American Constitution

    “At some point in our future the Constitution seems likely to become a purely procedural document, much like that of the former Soviet Union, and equally effective at preserving our liberties. Our rights will exist only on the sufferance of the government and our ruling elites. This is already true in the UK, as their “unwritten constitution” protecting the “rights of Englishmen” has blown away like smoke in the wind.”

    The changed role of Congress is a example of the above transformation. Congress becomes a player in the allocation of power and income among factions of our ruling elites, not in any meaningful sense a legislative body.

    Like

  11. plato's cave permalink
    15 April 2008 6:42 pm

    Fabius: I completely agree with your characterization above. But do you really believe that these “ruling elites” only recently ascended to power, and that before that they were in a struggle with the people for control of government?

    An emblematic but interesting fact is that until the end of the 19th century US Senators were not popularly elected, but appointed by the governors of their states.

    Gabriel Kolko’s book, The Triumph of Conservatism, makes a convincing case that the major legislation of the “progressive era” was orchestrated and written by the business class.
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    Fabius Maximus: Yes, I believe citizen control over the government was greater before the New Deal. For one thing, it was far smaller in every dimension — making some degree of control easier.
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    Consider the ratio of representatives to their population served — far smaller than now (Chet Richards discusses this in his new book, “If We Can Keep It”). Look at government (all levels) expenditures as a fraction of national GDP.

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  12. 15 April 2008 11:10 pm

    1.(In the context of Rome) “Do we have foes seeking to invade the US with military forces?” (Probably not, unless MS-13 is really effective…)

    2.”the Constitution seems likely to become a purely procedural document, much like that of the former Soviet Union, and equally effective at preserving our liberties.”

    The fall of Rome was not IMHO military defeat as much as moral defeat, accompanied by a very miserable standard of living for Romans. America could fall, not from foreign invasion, but because it obeys the short-sighted commands of its Neroes and Caligulas. Recall that in the last days of Rome, a baker’s son was obligated to be a baker, a carpenter’s son was obligated to be a carpenter, etc.
    America, once the land of social mobility, could suffer a similar lack of freedom in the lives of its citizens.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not understand your point. The original reference was to military defeat, comparing our natural defense to Rome’s. I replied much as your did, that America seems unlikely to fall — as Rome did — from external military invasion.
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    Taking it one step more, of course there were reasons for Rome’s military defeat. There usually are reasons other than the straight-forward ones of superior numbers and/or technology.

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  13. 16 April 2008 2:16 pm

    “For example, the Roman Empire retained the forms of the Republic long after the Republic’s death.”
    That was exactly Caligula’s point when he appointed his favourite horse as a member of the senate; maybe one day the commander-in-chief will appoint his poodle to the senate, just to make a point.

    “He describes how by late Republic times the Roman people had lost the will to govern themselves.”
    Did they forget where they put it? The Roman people never governed themselves, the rise and decline of the republic paralleled a process of economic transformation from farming to agriculture, from small-scale to large-scale, from free-labour to slave-labour and of course the growth of globalisation (or at least mediterranean-isation).

    The economic transformation of the US economy in the last two generations presages the decline of the US republic [The US will not become like France & Germany, Fabius, you are quite mistaken there.].

    Robert Petersen said : “But it is still the best thing we got.”
    This is not an argument, it is a mental failure to analyse and solve the pressing problems of the age. Such false assertions have been made by great thinkers in all kinds of times and they were always not true. This mental and philosophical exhaustion manifests itself not only in politics but in all aspects of society: arts, science, etc. (see my post about such claims in science)
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    Fabius Maximus replies: “Roman people never governed themselves” These sweeping generalizations are a bit much to take, and they keep cropping up in this discussion. Few things in life are binary; in most things there are magnitudes, degrees. Unless you standard of comparison is Heaven (but you have to die to get there).
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    The Roman people had considerable influence in their government, growing after the posting of the laws — then peaking — the fading to zero. To sweep all this away, saying it was all a mirage, is imo absurd.

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  14. 16 April 2008 3:36 pm

    Fabius Said: “The Roman people had considerable influence in their government”
    Well, now that we all agree that they did not govern themselves, we can certainly have a discussion about the degree of influence, everyone has influence even slaves influence their masters, but they are still slaves.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Nobody governs themselves in an absolute sense, as there are few absolutes of any kind in this human societies. When I say it is cold outside I do not speak with respect to absolute zero.
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    Disparities of wealth and personal power, both in this generation and in the past, are always with us. Also, some people hunger for those things more than the rest of us — and hence accumulate them. Even more imporant, all human organizational (e.g., business, family, church, government) structures to date are largely hierarchical — which means those at the top have more influence than those on the bottom.
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    Hence you are correct, all we can talk about is the ‘degree of influence”. Just because people (aggreagates, the majority of people) do not govern themselves, that does not mean they are slaves.

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  15. 17 April 2008 2:35 pm

    Sorry I didn’t get back till now.

    1) Sorry to disappoint; I am not the Pete Peterson who worked for Nixon. He’s a little older than I am. Worse, my real first name is Robert; but all Petersons get called Pete unless they fight it. I chose the path of least resistance.

    2) I really appreciate the way that you (Fabius Maximus) have been trying to develop and to quantify statements. (In a good way, not Macnamara’s “body counts”) “There are few absolutes of any kind”– how true and how seldom remembered!

    3) When anonemiss (comment #13 above) said “someday a commander in chief will appoint his poodle to the senate” I thought immediately of the exchange between Lloyd George and Balfour, in around 1907– Balfour had proudly described the House of Lords as “the watchdog of the British constitution” and Lloyd George retored ” Watchdog? It is Mr. Balfour’s poodle.” I thik we already have too many poodles in the Senate.

    4) When people talk of the factors leading to the fall of the Roman Empire, I think instead of how many years it lasted in good condition– the time of the Five Good Emperors lasted more than a century! If one looked at the Roman Empire in say 280, would we be able to see that the decline and fall was already well in progress? (Gibbon obviously thought so)
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for your comments!
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    Why is Rome always the standard of comparison? It was extraordinarily long-lived, and hence an outlier. What about the Athenian Empire, or Lydia, or any of the hundreds of short-lived “great powers” of the ancient world?
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    Modern times have proved difficult for “great powers”. Spain’s Empire was great for two centuries. The Brits had a large profitably Empire for one or two centuries, depending. Russia took much of Asia, and held it for almost two centures (and still owns much of the eastern half).
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    Unfortunately, we build the American Empire in the post-colonial era. The rise of 4GW means that empires are no longer profitable. I doubt our Empire, our time as hegemon, will last until the 100-year mark.

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  16. 18 April 2008 3:15 am

    Fabius:
    “History shows that the superficial forms of government remain long after the essentials have changed. For example, the Roman Empire retained the forms of the Republic long after the Republic’s death.”

    Anonemiss:
    “That was exactly Caligula’s point when he appointed his favourite horse as a member of the senate; maybe one day the commander-in-chief will appoint his poodle to the senate, just to make a point.”

    That expresses my intended point better than I could have done. What I mean when I ask is, “How long will America believe in itself enough to make wry little jokes like appointing poodles to senates?” Rome believed in itself for centuries after Caligula; I fear America may not last as long. The superficial forms may break down within a generation.
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    Fabius Maximus: Who can accurately predict the future? To do so requires knowing what is in people’s hearts. I am confident that America will beat the odds and build an even better future. That is faith, not logic.

    Like

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