House Democrats prioritize loyalty to the president over their own judgment

A primary criticism of the GOP Congress was excessive loyalty to the president. Has that changed in the Obama era?

By Glenn Greenwald

Published June 17, 2009 1:18PM (EDT)

(updated below)

Thanks largely to the tenacious, resourceful efforts of a handful of bloggers -- Jane Hamsher, Howie Klein, Bob Fertik, and David Swanson -- the White House was forced to scrape, claw, cajole and threaten in order to scrounge up enough House Democratic votes yesterday to pass its $100 billion war funding and foreign-bank bailout bill.  The administration succeeded only by convincing 19 House Democrats who had voted against the war spending bill just last month to switch their votes, and they even had to resort to having Obama himself call House members to whip up enough votes for passage.

The Washington Post's Perry Bacon reports what motivated at least some of the vote-switching in the House -- it was not support for the bill, but rather, political "loyalty" to the President:

The House today passed a $106 billion bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through September, as House Democrats backed President Obama despite misgivings among the ranks about his strategy in Afghanistan.

The 226 to 202 vote came after Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner had called some reluctant Democrats during the day imploring them to back the bill, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had strongly pressed her colleagues in a closed-door meeting to vote for the bill in a show of support for Obama, even if they oppose his strategy for increasing troops in Afghanistan. . . .

"We are in the process of wrapping up the wars. The president needed our support," said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who had earlier said he opposed the war funding but voted for it in the end. "But the substance still sucks" . . . .

House Democrats had put off the vote for more than a week, looking to win support for the bill. President Obama, who had pushed to insert a provision in the bill to bar the release of photos depicting abuse of detainees held in U.S. custody abroad, demanded the Senate take out the provision to win votes from House liberals who said they would not support the war bill if the photo ban was included.

In the end, 19 House Democrats backed the bill who had opposed it the first time, although some cited loyalty, not agreement with Obama's plans, as their reason.

"I want to support my president," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who changed her no vote to a yes.

If I recall correctly -- and I do -- the primary criticism of the GOP-led Congress from 2002-2006 was that it abdicated its institutional responsibility to act as an independent branch and instead became a subservient arm of the executive branch due to political allegiance to the Republican President.   Pat Leahy famously mocked Congressional Republicans for taking orders from Dick Cheney on how to vote at a weekly lunch they had with him.  But at least Congressional Republicans had the decency to pretend that they were exercising their own independent judgment -- not subordinating their judgment to the President's will out of "loyalty."

If these House Democrats had voted for this bill because they genuinely changed their minds and decided that war spending and the IMF bailout were good ideas, then one could argue with them on the merits, but at least they'd be fulfilling their function:  exercising the independent judgment the Constitution requires of them.  But voting for a bill with which they disagree out of "loyalty" to the President -- a desire "to support my president" -- is a total abdication of their primary duty.  If they're going to obey the President even when they disagree with him, they should abolish themselves and transfer all of their Article I authority to Rahm Emanuel and Obama.

Before doing that, they should also probably read what James Madison had to say in Federalist 47 about the subservient attitude they are explicitly acknowledging, as Madison responded to objections that the Constitution failed sufficiently to separate the executive, legislative and judicial branches:

No political truth is certainly of greater intrinsic value, or is stamped with the authority of more enlightened patrons of liberty, than that on which the objection is founded. The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. Were the federal Constitution, therefore, really chargeable with the accumulation of power, or with a mixture of powers, having a dangerous tendency to such an accumulation, no further arguments would be necessary to inspire a universal reprobation of the system. . . .

Where the whole power of one department is exercised by the same hands which possess the whole power of another department, the fundamental principles of a free constitution are subverted. This would have been the case in the constitution examined by him, if the king, who is the sole executive magistrate, had possessed also the complete legislative power.

And in Federalist 48, Madison emphasized that the shared duties of each branch is indispensable as the only means to impose checks and limits against one branch exercising untrammeled power:  

[U]nless these departments be so far connected and blended as to give to each a constitutional control over the others, the degree of separation which the maxim requires, as essential to a free government, can never in practice be duly maintained.  It is agreed on all sides, that the powers properly belonging to one of the departments ought not to be directly and completely administered by either of the other departments. It is equally evident, that none of them ought to possess, directly or indirectly, an overruling influence over the others, in the administration of their respective powers.

There is reason why the Constitution created a Congress, and there is a reason the Congress -- and not the President -- has the Constitutional power to appropriate money.  Members of Congress are supposed to exercise their own independent judgment about those matters, not submit their will to the President out of "loyalty" and a "desire to support my President."  That sounds like the meekest Roman Senators referring to their beloved emperor.   In 2007 -- after the latest capitulation by Congressional Democrats to George Bush -- The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin wrote:  "Historians looking back on the Bush presidency may well wonder if Congress actually existed."  It sounds as though Congressional Democrats are intent on staying just as invisible, impotent and subservient in the Obama era.

* * * * *

One final point:  who does Anthony Weiner think he's fooling when he says that "We are in the process of wrapping up the wars"?  Does anyone believe that?  These two war are now being fully funded -- without timetable or conditions -- by a Democratic Congress under a Democratic President.  Presumably, that's because they believe these wars should continue, and they should admit that and then argue for that position.  Pretending that this funding is merely for the purpose of "wrapping up the wars" is too transparently false to be anything other than insulting -- even judging by the lowly standards of Washington discourse.


UPDATE:  Here is the statement this week of one House member who, under Bush, repeatedly voted against war funding and was quite dismayed to watch so many Democrats who used to vote with him turn around this week and vote for the war funding bill:

Mr. Speaker, I rise in strong opposition to this conference report on the War Supplemental Appropriations. I wonder what happened to all of my colleagues who said they were opposed to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wonder what happened to my colleagues who voted with me as I opposed every war supplemental request under the previous administration. It seems, with very few exceptions, they have changed their position on the war now that the White House has changed hands. I find this troubling. As I have said while opposing previous war funding requests, a vote to fund the war is a vote in favor of the war. Congress exercises its constitutional prerogatives through the power of the purse. . . .

Mr. Speaker, I continue to believe that the best way to support our troops is to bring them home from Iraq and Afghanistan. . . . Our continued presence in Iraq and Afghanistan does not make us safer at home, but in fact it undermines our national security. I urge my colleagues to defeat this reckless conference report.

I'm interested in knowing what the arguments are against this position.  I haven't identified the specific member of Congress who said this because the mere mention of his name tends to prevent a consideration of the substance of the remarks, but those who want to know can find it here.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn GreenwaldFOLLOW ggreenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------