Mark Shields: You can delegate authority, but not responsibility

Mark Shields

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., is that refreshing, if too rare, Washington type: a workhorse rather than a show horse. Kaine has been making a lot of his Capitol Hill colleagues uncomfortable by continuing to publicly point out during the six months U.S. troops have been at war against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria that by refusing to even debate the authorization of military force, they are guilty of an “unacceptable abdication” of their “most solemn responsibility” as members of Congress — to declare war.

Kaine, to his credit, reminds the country and Congress that though you may be able to delegate authority, you cannot delegate responsibility, that Congress’ cowardly delay in meeting its constitutional obligation to vote on what the perilous mission to which they are committing our troops involves “dishonors the sacrifice of American service members who are risking their lives.” Nor should we mostly mute citizens escape censure for our failure to demand that Congress — Democrats and Republicans — respect the Constitution and end the practice of surrendering all its power to the White House under the pretense of not tying the president’s hands.

Let’s be blunt. Presidents, including the current occupant of the Oval Office, much prefer to have carte blanche, without any interference or second-guessing, to employ U.S. military power as they deem necessary. The most recent time Congress voted to declare war was Dec. 8, 1941. But the U.S. — especially since 1973, when both the military draft and the era of the citizen-soldier were ended to be replaced by an all-volunteer military — has engaged in military conflicts from Panama to Bosnia and Kosovo to all over the Middle East with Congress occasionally holding headline-seeking hearings but carefully ducking any responsibility.

Without the draft and every family’s potentially having a son, nephew, cousin or niece who could be put in harm’s way by military service, national foreign policy has been less and less a topic at the American dinner table. Citizenship has ceased to involve an individual’s responsibilities but emphasized instead our personal rights. Self-sacrifice is out, and self-absorption and self-fulfillment are very much in.

Without civilians entering the military for a two- or three-year obligation, as was the case under the draft, members of Congress have not heard so often from constituents questioning or criticizing U.S. military engagements. It is easier for a congressman just to issue a press release, to surrender all the authority to the president, and to demonstrate his complete support of the military by fawning on and deferring to generals and admirals.

When Congress voted in 2002 — after an uninspired debate — to yield the decision to invade Iraq to President George W. Bush, not one of the 435 members of the House of Representatives had a son or daughter in the enlisted ranks of the nation’s military.

Sgt. Brooks Johnson of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division was the only American enlisted man on active duty who was the son of a member of Congress. His father is Tim Johnson, a Democrat from South Dakota who was then a senator. Congress and the financial, economic, media and intellectual establishment have no skin in the game.

There are two 1 percents in the U.S. today. The richest 1 percent has more than doubled its share of the national income since the Ronald Reagan years. And an entirely different 1 percent does all the fighting, all the suffering and all the dying in the nation’s wars. We were a better and stronger nation when national defense was every American family’s responsibility.

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