Congress: Do your job

The conservatives are screaming bloody murder over President Obama’s stated plan this year to use his executive power to bypass Congress when necessary in solving some of the nation’s most pressing problems. And I have to admit: I’m a little uncomfortable myself. Like most Americans, I revere the Constitution and the concept of separation of powers.

The question is: Who is at fault for this problem?

To answer that, a few case studies from history might be instructive.

In the late Middle Ages, the largest and most powerful nation in Europe was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and from Germany and Austria almost to Moscow. Almost all of what we know as Eastern Europe, include much of today’s Russia, was contained within its borders.

Except for avid students of European history, the above paragraph is probably mildly surprising. Most of you have probably never heard of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Where did this large, powerful nation go? We have Poland and Lithuania today, but these nations are hardly world powers. What happened?

The Commonwealth was ruled by an elected king and by the Sejm, a legislative body consisting of the nobles of the country. In the late 1600’s the concept of the liberum veto was introduced in the Sejm. This change allowed any member of the Sejm to veto any legislation, essentially requiring a unanimous vote to pass. About the same time, the members of the Sejm started to be more concerned about their own little fiefdoms rather than the overall good of the nation. The result was that the Commonwealth became ungovernable. Her neighbors took advantage of the situation, and during the latter half of the 18th century, she was literally carved up and partitioned amongst her neighbors; Russia, Prussia and Austria. The American Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kościuszko returned to his native Poland and led a revolution to try to save his country, but by then it was too late.

More recently, we have the example of the depression-era Weimar Republic in Germany, where a bickering, divisive Reichstag resulted in paralyzed government and paved the way for Adolf Hitler to assume power.

There are many more examples, but the lesson is clear: The path to tyranny is paved by dysfunctional government, especially in the legislature, which is the branch most closely tied to the people.

The parallel to the United States in 2014 is clear. One of the major political parties has a curious, perverse incentive: Their ideology claims that the government can’t do anything right, so they have the incentive to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, the government has to function. We can have honest debates over what the government should do, but once the decision has been made, we must work together to make government function.

My message to congressional Republicans couldn’t be more clear: Are you upset about President Obama trying to do your job? Then why don’t you do your job.

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