Saturday, September 7, 2013

Congress Is Not in Session

Last Saturday, President Obama surprised the world when he announced that he would "allow" Congress to debate and vote concerning military action against Syria.  As luck would have it, Congress is not currently in session and the only person who can call it back into session is the President.  And the President absolutely does not want to do that.  Why not?

In 1807, President Jefferson had a somewhat similar problem.  The British had long been at war with the French, and in an effort to keep their navy preeminent, had been violating American neutrality by stopping our ships on the high seas and forcibly removing sailors they claimed were "British deserters."  Actually, depending on their manpower shortages, they occasionally just seized Americans and "pressed" them into British service.

The combination of using force to stop American ships and the impressment of our sailors infuriated our infant country, but the fury turned to rage after the British ship, HMS Leopard, attacked the USS Chesapeake just off the coast of Virginia.   The British ship pursued the Chesapeake and fired broadsides into her, forcing the American vessel to lower its colors and allow the British to board her.  The British removed four sailors, one of whom was subsequently hanged.  

The country demanded war--literally screamed for war--and President Jefferson wanted to punish the British.  He didn't like England in the best of times, and this was clearly an act of war just off the American coast, but as president, Jefferson knew that this country was no match for the British.  During his administration, the readiness of the American navy and army had suffered:  put simply, our military was not capable of taking on the British.

Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution gives Congress the right to declare war, and Congress was eager to do just that--but Congress was not in session.  Congressional leaders insisted that Jefferson call a special session, and when Jefferson refused, one newspaper called Jefferson a "dish of skim milk curdling at the head of our nation." 

Jefferson knew that by the time that Congress came back into session, the fury would have abated and the eagerness for war would have  passed---and he was right.   Congress eventually passed a few idiotic trade sanctions that had the net result of impoverishing America and doing almost nothing to the British.  All the economic progress since the revolution was wiped out by the misguided trade sanctions.  Unfortunately, five years later--under a different president--America did declare war on England and the fledgling country just barely survived.

If swift action were what President Obama really wanted, I think he would have called a special session of Congress for the first time in over sixty years.  But on September 9th, when Congress is already scheduled to reconvene, the heat of the moment will have cooled, and a vote for a military strike will be less likely.  What is also clear is that--no matter what happens--the fault will then be on Congress.  

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