There’s an old bit of Washington, DC waggery: “The President proposes, Congress disposes”. Lots of people have heard the phrase and chuckled at its cleverness but I’m not sure they understand it. Perhaps a little context would help in clarifying it.
The witticism is a play on a much older apothegm: “Man proposes but God disposes”. I’ve seen this attributed to a variety of sources from Napoleon to U. S. Grant but the earliest occurrence I’m aware of is from Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ:
The resolution of the righteous dependeth more upon the grace of God than upon their own wisdom; for in Him they always put their trust, whatsoever they take in hand. For man proposeth, but God disposeth; and the way of a man is not in himself.
The Latin is Nam homo proponit, sed Deus disponit.
It’s a lovely bit of antithesis and I suspect it’s much older than à Kempis (c. 1380–1471). It has the sound of Horace to me. Perhaps my blog-friend Callimachus can cast some light on this.
The Imitation of Christ is one of the greatest of all works of Christian mysticism and has been read and loved for three quarters of a millennium. I think it should be much more widely read today than it is and might convey a somewhat different notion of Christianity than appears to be abroad in the world today. Attributing the quote to other than à Kempis (unless, of course, it is, in fact, older) denigrates both à Kempis and Grant (or Napoleon) since it denies à Kempis his due and fails to acknowledge that Grant might have been familiar (at least at second hand) with The Imitation of Christ.
But back to the subject. When you realize that in the Washingtonism “Man” has been replaced by “The President” and “God” by “Congress”, the meaning becomes quite clear: the President is the handmaiden of Congress and subject to its will, not the other way around.
Under our system the president has primary responsibility for the military, the conduct of foreign policy, and the administration of the departments of government:
The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; he may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices, and he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.
and enforcing the law. The Congress has primary responsibility for the creation, passage, and promulgation of laws (and, of course, raising and apportioning revenue).
Here’s what the Constitution says about the president’s responsibilities in formulating domestic policy:
He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in case of disagreement between them, with respect to the time of adjournment, he may adjourn them to such time as he shall think proper; he shall receive ambassadors and other public ministers; he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and shall commission all the officers of the United States.
It should be clear that ours is a system in which the bulk of the responsibility particularly in the area of domestic policy devolves upon the Congress; we expect leadership and courage from our Congress; when you have cowardice and venality and a willingness to wait for the President to act and then snipe you get, well, what we have now. But that’s not our system it’s a perversion of our system.
This post is, in part, a response to a comment from frequent, respected, and valued commenter Nadezhda that Democratic Senators weren’t in a position to lead, shouldn’t follow, and were under no obligation to get out of the way. Like it or not Senators are leaders. The slim Republican majority in the Senate doesn’t absolve the Democrats in the Senate from the responsibility to lead.
Let me be very clear: I’m not just critical of Senate Democrats. I think the Senators of both political parties did not fulfill their responsibilities when they authorized the president to go to war with insufficient debate. But I further think that those Senators who voted “Nay” had a responsiblity to hold their peace once our soldiers had gone into harm’s way and those who voted “Aye” had an affirmative responsibility to defend their vote and advocate the position to the American people. This is manifestly not what happened and that’s why I’m convinced that many Senators, particularly Senate Democrats, did not vote their consciences but voted with one eye (as Nadezhda pointed out) on the midterm elections and the other on the upcoming presidential primaries. Of course there will be political calculation from Senators. But there should be more than political calculation. Where is the statesmanship? We aren’t just warring factions; we’re all Americans.
I also freely acknowledge that the greatest incompetency of the Bush Administration has been in communicating with the American people, with the Iraqi people, and with the world. But the Administration doesn’t have sole responsibility for communicating with the American people. Congress has substantial responsibilities in that area, too.