“The President proposes, Congress disposes”

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 When you realize that in the Washingtonism “Man” has been replaced by “The President” and “God” by “Congress”, the meaning becomes quite clear: the President is the handmaiden of Congress and subject to its will, not the other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.

8 comments… add one

  • Dave – Excellent post! You’re getting to what I think we both see as the heart of the matter, the appropriate balance among the separate powers, and how it’s not been working well as of late. You’ve provoked me into another long essay. Rather than bury it in this comment thread, I’ve posted it at chez Nadezhda (cross-posted at LaT).

  • CharleyCarp

    I’m new to the discussion, but not the world. It’s quaint to act as if the timing, scope, and content of the fall 2002 debate over using force in Iraq, or text of the resolution, was a product of Congress. As we all know, the WH was intimately involved at every stage. And that the whole exercise was stage managed as part of the mid-year election campaign. I don’t say that this completely exculpates senators of either party, but it’s certainly meaningful context. Congress has been awol on a whole lot of issues wrt the WOT, including Gitmo and the black prisons, where it’s power to legislate is even clearer than usual. (I’ve never understood why Prof. Yoo thinks the CinC clause would trump the explicit provisions in Article I giving Congress power to regulate the armed forces, and provide rules for captures on Land). This is not because members are lazy, though, it is because the WH has talked its allies (and browbeat its foes) in Congress out of it.

    WRT statesmanship, I’d like to see the people in power, and the people with the track record of exploiting nuance in as unfair a way as possible, go first.

  • CharleyCarp

    Article I, section 8:

    The Congress shall have power . . . [t]o define and punish . . . offenses against the law of nations; [t]o . . . make rules concerning captures on land and water; [and t]o make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces[.]

  • I’m not claiming that the President has no responsibility for what’s happened over the last several years, CharleyCarp, I’m counterclaiming that the Senate does have responsibility. I just don’t buy the idea that the Senate is composed of naifs who were rolled by a canny and unscrupulous White House. What I wanted to happen was for the Senate to engage in a robust debate on the subject of use of force in Iraq and, once the issue had been decided there, to actually support the Senate’s decision (whatever is was) with enthusiasm.

    That patently is not what happened. Regardless of what the President or White House’s role has or has not been, Senators cannily weighed the political consequences of a “Yay“ or “Nay” vote and acted, I think cynically, as weathervanes. Fair enough. You pays your money and you gets your choice.

    But once having voted they needed to move affirmatively to consolidate the country behind their decision. And that they did not do.

    WRT statesmanship, I’d like to see the people in power, and the people with the track record of exploiting nuance in as unfair a way as possible, go first.

    I honestly don’t give a damn who “goes first”. That’s kids stuff. I care about the country presenting a unified front while soldiers are in the field on foreign soil.

  • JC

    Well, I would say that here that you should follow Jesus’s advice in the Sermon on the Mount:

    “Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

    You say:

    “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.”

    However, you completely neglect to mention how the scheduling of the vote, the political and media strategy around the vote, as implemented by the Bush administration, reeked of political opportunism.

    Unlike Bush the First, where the vote for the first Iraq war was scheduled AFTER congressional elections, this vote was scheduled before the midterm elections, to better use as a cudgel. Not to mention all of the cheap partisan rhetoric employed by the various right wing media outlets.

    Also, as Nadezhda has mentioned – this vote was a vote of support, for continuing the policy of pressure. As such, this worked. Saddam let in the U.N. inspectors, who subsequently combed through the likely places for WMD’s, found NOTHING, and reported this back.

    However, the fact of not finding the WMD’s that were dispatched, did not change the existing judgement of going into Iraq. Given that, why even send the inspectors in – and then smear the inspectors once they reported back faithfully what they found?

    Given this, I would argue that to a large degree, it was the President of the United States who betrayed the intent behind the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq

    Section 2 authorized the use of force through the UNSC – however the UNSC was subsequently abandoned by the Bush adminstration.

    Section 3b linked threat assessment and the use of force determination to September 11 – “including those nations, organizations or persons who planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorists attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”

    And that link between 2001 and Iraq is negligible, we all know now.

    The point you has some truth – Senators should be true to something beyond political calculation – but in previous comments Nadezhda has shown a number of Democratic Senators acting in a fairly responsible fashion.

    Given that, and the “beam” in Republicans eye, this critique is as relevant to the Bush administration, wouldn’t you say?

  • Given that, and the “beam” in Republicans eye, this critique is as relevant to the Bush administration, wouldn’t you say?

    Sure, JC. And the Bush Administration is getting plenty of criticism. I’m just pointing out that the Senate—by the design of our system—should be in for the lion’s share of the criticism.

    And I’m not a Republican.

  • Congress has been ducking its reponsibility for war for a long time. As I recall, the last time Congress declared war was during World War II. In the case of Iraq, Bush provided a plausible reason for Congress to give away it’s power to declare war:

    I have asked Congress to authorize the use of America’s military, if it proves necessary, to enforce U.N. Security Council demands. Approving this resolution does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable. The resolution will tell the United Nations, and all nations, that America speaks with one voice and is determined to make the demands of the civilized world mean something. Congress will also be sending a message to the dictator in Iraq: that his only chance — his only choice is full compliance, and the time remaining for that choice is limited.

    To me it appeared (and still appears) that if Congress rejected the resolution, the weapons inspectors would not have been allowed to return to Iraq. Since we did not know whether Iraq had WMD, it was clearly in our national interest to have the weapons inspectors find out what the story was.

    Based on subsequent events, as well as the Downing Street memos, it’s pretty clear that Bush was lying. Military force was not necessary to enforce U.N. Security Council demands, but Bush used it anyway. And the Downing Street memos tell us that Bush had already decided to invade Iraq when he claimed that military action was “avoidable.” But I don’t think at the time it was obvious, even to careful observers, that Bush’s dishonesty extended to the point that he was willing to lie the nation into war.

    To the extent that your argument depends on the assumption that the vote was on whether or not to go to war, it is an argument based on a false premise. You write that, “those who voted ‘Aye’ had an affirmative responsibility to defend their vote and advocate the position to the American people.” Members of Congress could do that without supporting the war.

    To the extent that your argument is that Congress should have decided whether or not to go to war, I am sympathetic to it. The Constitution specificly gives the power to declare war to Congress, not the President. But you haven’t addressed the counter-arguments, which are that (1) Congress met its Consitutional responsibility by formally delegating Congress’s power to declare war to the President, (2) the threat of war is a diplomatic tool, and probably an essential one for dealing with Saddam, so denying the President the ability to declare war in this instance would have prevented him from carrying out effective diplomacy, and (3) there is precedent for Congress not declaring war, which is not by itself a convincing argument, but does add weight to arguments 1 and 2.

  • Sorry, I just noticed this call for clarification. Yes, the modern phrase seems to have originated with Kempis. There is an almost idential phrase in Piers Plowman (Homo proponet et Deus disponit), which is perhaps a generation earlier than Kempis, but not Roman. A Roman probably would have credited fate, not God, with disposing.

    If there’s an ultimate source, perhaps it’s Proverbs 16:9 — “A man’s heart deviseth his way; but the Lord directeth his steps” (in the Vulgate, “cor hominis disponet viam suam sed Domini est dirigere gressus eius”).

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