Washington is suddenly embroiled in one of its most time-honored traditions, a debate about the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution, specifically how it should be applied to our efforts in Libya. But don't worry! This is not a column about the War Powers Act, the term paper topic of choice for earnest AP social studies students for roughly the past four decades. Instead, it is about the bipartisan problem of institutional cowardice in the American political system.
The War Powers Act -- which sets an arbitrary deadline for presidents to seek congressional approval for military engagements -- is just one facet of a much more serious malady: acute buck-passing.
There are good arguments on every side of the Libyan war. But few people in either party want to have them. "Congress has war powers, too," writes former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy in National Review Online, and if Congress wanted to stop the war it could have done so the day Obama announced it. If it approved of what the president has done, it could have said so the same day as well. Instead, the War Powers Act gives Congress an artificial excuse to do nothing and see how the political chits land.
But the real buck-passing is to be found elsewhere. Consider the countless budgetary gimmicks -- mostly championed by Republicans -- working their way through the legislative digestive tract. Balanced budget amendments and similar mechanisms might ultimately be necessary to get our fiscal house in order, but they're only necessary because Congress and the White House are institutionally incapable of fulfilling their obligations to spend within their means. It's like an overweight man insisting that someone else has to be in charge of his diet. It could be the only recourse, but it hardly speaks well of the guy's self-control.
There's ample blame to go around, but not everybody is equally blameworthy. The Republicans, under the leadership of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, have introduced a serious plan to bring debt and spending under control, and the response from the Democrats is wildly irresponsible rhetoric about throwing seniors to the wolves, off a cliff or some other cartoonish metaphor. The Democrats haven't even fulfilled their minimal obligation to offer a budget in more than 750 days. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., says it would be "foolish" for the Democrats to even bother.