The central feature of American government, the one that made the United States "exceptional" and preserved our freedoms for more than 200 years, is in the process of being destroyed. The enemy is not in Iraq or the hills of Pakistan but in Washington and in cities and towns throughout the United States.
America's founders, it turns out, were not as smart as we thought. They assumed that if they put most of the nation's real powers -- over war, taxes and spending -- in the hands of the people themselves, through their representatives, those representatives would do their duty and prevent an American president from acting as though he were king.
Congress was not to be a copy of the British Parliament but its exact opposite: Whereas Parliament is essentially an extension of the executive (the prime minister's party always controls Parliament, and its members are expected to enact his or her proposals) and members need not have any connection to the "constituencies" they allegedly represent, the American system requires members of Congress to come from the states they represent and to serve as a check on -- not enabler of -- the president.
It's a simple enough concept but one apparently hard for members of Congress to grasp.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) was quoted recently bemoaning the fact that legislators were going to have to fend for themselves in November's elections. "You are going to run on who you are and establish some independence," he told the New York Times, "and that is going to be tougher for some than others." Having served in Congress myself, I feel sad for those members who are going to find it tough to run as who they are and "establish some independence," but I had assumed that was precisely what they were supposed to do.
The opposite, of course, would be to pretend to be someone other than who one really is, or to have no convictions other than to obey somebody else's directives (presumably those of the president or party leaders).
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has a similar confusion. Interviewed on National Public Radio, she said part of her job as House speaker was to ensure that there would be a Democratic majority in the next Congress. That, of course, is likely to happen regardless of what she does, but that is actually the job of the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; Pelosi's job is to legislate and to see to it that the House fulfills its constitutional duties as a separate, independent and equal branch of the federal government.
Tom Cole, the Oklahoma congressman who is chairman of the Republican campaign committee in the House, inherited a mess, including a deeply unpopular president and a host of GOP incumbents heading for the hills, and has been unfairly blamed for the party's losses in this year's special elections (full disclosure: He is a friend who once worked on my congressional staff). But even Cole, who holds a doctorate and is one of the smartest members of Congress, sometimes loses sight of what it means to be a member of the legislative branch. Asked about the desirability of distancing oneself from George W. Bush, Cole told the Washington Post that "it's not for me to second-guess the president of the United States." Yes, it is. That is precisely the constitutional obligation of a member of Congress -- to second-guess, challenge, question and, when necessary, serve as a check on a president.
In November, voters will elect every member of the House and one-third of the members of the Senate. In January, each successful candidate will take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. Perhaps it would be good for each of them to get a crash course in exactly what that means.