Congress Viewed from Across the Pond

Obama Pointing Photo

"Viewed from across the pond, the U.S. Congress seems at best incompetent and at worst a joke," Alex Massie argues. And that perception is not without consequence.

President Barack Obama deliberately pitched himself as a leader for the post-globalization age. So many promises were made on so many fronts that, inevitably, many of them would be broken or ignored or, as now seems increasingly probable, chewed up by the legislative process.

No wonder Europeans are unimpressed by this president and his inability to deliver upon the promises he made, not merely to American voters, but to the entire planet. Campaign aspirations are always snuffed out by brutal political reality. But rarely has the contrast between campaign poetry and governing prose been quite so clear.

Nowhere has this been more the case than on climate change and the fate of the prison at Guantánamo Bay. European leaders had hoped for more from Obama at the Copenhagen conference on climate change. Hamstrung by a skeptical Congress, Obama did his best. But it was a best that satisfied few people and, once more, reminded Europeans that the U.S. president is less powerful, in terms of domestic politics, than any prime minister. It was a reminder of the Yankee separation of powers. Only the most cockeyed optimist would bet on cap-and-trade legislation passing this year.


Because, more than anything else, it was the promise to close Gitmo that earned the president his Nobel Peace Prize, the failure to solve the detainee problem now makes that award seem even more preposterously premature. Much worse than making the president seem weak, it risks making him seem ridiculous. While politicians can survive and even, on rare occasions, embrace disapproval, mockery and ridicule are much more poisonous.

Another irritant, imposed upon the rest of the international community by the world’s most ridiculous deliberative body, is the lack of U.S. diplomatic representation in key spots. Brazil went nearly a year without an ambassador because of a senatorial hold, while important positions at the World Trade Organization and other bodies still remain unfilled.

Of course, the Senate’s arcane rules and the hyper-partisan atmosphere in DC are only partially to blame for Obama’s inability to carry out his Gitmo promise.  He simply didn’t think through the consequences of his announcement before making it.  (And, while our European cousins were thrilled, they weren’t exactly eager to take the detainees off our hands, either.)

And with climate change and cap-and-trade, there’s hardly a consensus even among Senate Democrats.  The fact of the matter is that Americans are simply not as willing as those in Western Europe to submit to international regulation of our industry.

Alex is absolutely right that the process for confirming ambassadors and other officials is too cumbersome.   But, as I argued last October, the solution is professional ambassadors. Having the president appoint and the Senate confirm 5000-0dd officials every four to eight years  is just insane.

The overarching complaint, though, is systemic.  Even if our legislators suddenly became more mature and less petty (and I agree with Dave Schuler that they won’t) our system of governance was designed with the primary intention of making it difficult to get anything done.  Our Framers feared tyranny much more than inefficiency and designed our institutions accordingly.

For many, the idea that a party can win an election and yet not be able to govern as they wish is shocking. Because the United States is unusual — if not unique — in that regard, it’s unfathomable to those overseas.  Indeed, having taught the subject to college freshmen, I can attest that most Americans don’t understand it, either.    But, if you happen to be on the losing side of things, it’s very much a feature rather than a bug.

It doesn’t help that our media, historians, and even presidents and would-be presidents all pretend that the system is something different.  Presidents and presidential candidates make ridiculously bold promises to do things clearly outside their power to deliver.  At the same time, they’re given credit for good things that happen on their watch they had precious little to do with and are blamed for not fixing things they couldn’t possibly fix. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images.

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