Sunday, October 6, 2013

Congress Has Duties As Well As Power

We have had occasion before to observe, as Justice Holmes liked to remind his colleagues, officials of the federal government have duties. Amid all the blather of pundits about "polarization" and "partisanship," those constitutional duties of our government lie forgotten. The Constitution gives to Congress the legislative "powers" of the national government, but it also requires members of that body to be "citizens;" which is to say, men and women who have a sense of their duty to govern in the public interest. There are no checks and balances that can enforce this fundamental duty. We must rely on the Representatives' and Senators' sense of their duty as citizens. Yet a giddy bunch of Republicans, a minority within a minority, have engineered a shutdown of the federal government, simply as a piece of political theater,a performance for the cameras to express their power, and their hatred of the president. No one pretends this will have any positive result. An even more grave breach of duty looms, with the threat of a default on government debt. The Constitution is quite explicit about the duty of Congress in this regard. The Fourteenth Amendment says
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for the payment of pensions . . . shall not be questioned.
The default which some Republicans threaten would be unconstitutional, and many have urged the President to continue paying our debts. But he can't and won't; this is above all Congress' duty, to pay the debts that they themselves have incurred. That duty is stated in the Constitution because it is a constitutive principle of our nation: the existence of the United States has more than once depended upon the willingness of our friends to lend money, to enable the government to defend itself against British aggression and Southern rebellion. Those members of Congress who most loudly claim their fidelity to the Constitution have abandoned their duty to pay our debts, and ought to be ashamed of themselves.