Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 2, 2014

Ancient analogies?

Filed under: Congress and HLS — by Philip J. Palin on August 2, 2014

Yesterday (Friday) the House passed an emergency supplemental to provide some additional funding to address various problems — mostly associated with the surge of children — at our Southern border.

The Senate had failed to advance related legislation and left town Thursday. With no second chamber to take up the House action the bill cannot become an Act of Congress.  The current “emergency” is left to the Executive to handle as best it can.

I suppose the House action does establish a floor for negotiations with the Senate in mid-September, when the emergency will, probably, be even more acute.  Otherwise, the drama on Capitol Hill was about as substantive as most performance art. Maybe the House should reconvene at the Hirshhorn.

But passage of the legislative package allows some House members the illusion-to-spread — self-delusion to indulge? — that the House was able to be responsible when others are not.

Once upon a time I gave considerable attention to the constitution of late republican Rome, from about 140 BC to Augustus. The Framers of the US Constitution were significantly influenced by the “mixed” government of the Roman Republic.  But even at the beginning of this period much of the republic’s legislative process had become empty ritual.  Only the Senate remained a source of real moral authority, political power, and legislative substance.

Over the century-plus before the Caesars, the Roman Senate largely abrogated its authentic power, becoming another venue for political theater.  Power emerged and was practiced elsewhere.

The reasons are complicated.  Not all have analogies for our situation.  But the principal symptomology — whatever the underlying pathology — was a failure to legislate: the inability to find sufficient consensus within the Senate to act in a reasonable, timely and effective manner.

In the late republic, the absence of legislative effectiveness produced Executives compelled to act (not always wisely) even when they would have preferred not to act.  And, in any case, the Executive acted without the benefit of legislative wisdom, reason or, at the very least, the give-and-take of experience and independent judgment in search of agreement.

We are not quite there.  But we are close enough to make me uncomfortable.

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4 Comments »

Comment by E. Earhart

August 2, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

Mr. Palin:

This failure to legislate is even more disturbing when one considers that from 2000-2006 (Republicans) and 2009-2010 (Democrats) controlled all three branches of government.

Furthermore, the absence of legislative effectiveness leads not only to the executive branch being compelled to act, but also the judiciary being compelled to act and defacto legislate.

Comment by Rubin, claire

August 2, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

Over the weekend the editorial staff of the Wall St. Journal lit into the Congressional Republicans for their public display of ineptitude. A sign that the conservatives are disgusted too.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 3, 2014 @ 3:59 am

Sorry Phil but a very weak US Senate about to be further weakened.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 3, 2014 @ 5:50 am

Mr. Earlhart, Claire, and Bill:

Thanks. In addition to the WSJ, Krauthammer, Will and other leading conservatives have been forthright in their critique of what happened Wednesday-Friday. If only it was an aberration. But it is clearly a pattern. It also seems to be a pattern the mid-terms are likely to strengthen. Madison et al were — based on the example of the late Roman republic — especially concerned by factionalism. It was and is a wise concern. Madison hoped he had reduced the risk of factionalism through an expansive nationalism. In the mid-19th Century sectionalism presented an existential threat to nationalism. The Civil War decided the political contest. I’m not even quite sure what to call the current threat to national unity. It seems mostly defined by what it is not.

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