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Op-Ed

By Dropping Syria In Congress’s Lap, Obama Creates The Worst Of The Bad Old Days

Bill Frenzel

In the olden days, before the 75% debt ratio, when compromise meant achievement rather than dishonor, service in the Congress was rewarding, fulfilling, and often, fun. But, even in those kinder, gentler times, there were occasional days when Congress was a pain, even to its most enthusiastic members.

The bad days were times when members were called upon to make decisions on problems where there were no apparent good choices, and no good outcomes. On those days, win or lose; right or wrong; members had to take political heat from friend and foe, often to no good purpose.

Those tough votes might have been on Congressional pay raises, or supporting one’s president when his position was debatable, or an impeachment vote. Congress has always had to face difficult votes from time to time.

The current Congress does everything possible to avoid difficult votes. Few decisions are made, and none are long term. Kicking the can down road has become the rule of the day. The agony of making hard choices still exists, but it’s the rare exception. The ancient art of protecting one’s president, or taking one for the team, or voting against the mail bag is becoming a lost art.

Now, the president has changed all that. In dropping the Syrian problem in Congress’s lap, he has re-created one of the worst of the bad old days. The Syrian vote offers no good choice, and no good outcome. There is only a yes-no menu of choices from which members of Congress must pick the least worst. That difficult vote that members hate is now inevitable.

Although the president says the line in the sand was drawn by the international community, at home, it still looks like his line. In Libya, he acted unilaterally. For Syria, he is asking Congress to ratify his decision, which the public does not like.

Congress would much prefer to let the president take the heat alone. It loves to criticize, but hates decision-making. This time there is no escape. The president has forced the Congress to make a decision.

For libertarians of the far right, and left-wing doves, it’s an easy “Nay” vote. For many of those closer to the center, Democrats and Republicans, who will be the deciders, it will be an excruciating decision, with no good outcomes in sight.

Republicans, like the House leadership, may not trust the president, but they dare not leave the Republic swinging in the wind (the McCain argument). Democrats, whose normal nature is peaceful, may, with deep regret, feel obliged to support their president. Both sides would rather let him take responsibility, and some members may resent having this unhappy decision thrust upon them.

Congress seems to be moving toward the ratification of the president’s modest military intervention. If it does, our intervention will only prevent the U.S. from looking badly in world affairs. As described in the Senate Resolution, it probably will have little effect on the civil war in Syria.

Unfortunately, there is much more to this vote than a president forcing the Congress to ratify his decision. The Syria question is also consuming the president’s political capital at a time when he may be running a bit short anyway. He’s not a lame duck yet, but in a year he will be. Capital spent on Syria is capital not available for looming domestic problems.

Worse, the decision comes at a time when Congressional energies ought to be focused on the FY14 CR, the sequester repair, and the debt ceiling extension. Congress is already a polarized battleground. Syria, because it is different, may relieve tensions. More likely, it will crank up animosities and resentments between parties, branches and houses. Surely, it will burn valuable negotiating time.

Syria is an important foreign policy/national security issue. But it’s a mouse compared to the elephantine domestic fiscal problem. It now seems probable that the Syria vote may delay and confuse settlement of the budget question, and exacerbate existing budget tensions.

If those conditions lead to a smaller budget agreement, and another year or two of kicking that same old can down the road, those unintended consequences would dwarf whatever happens in Syria as a result of well-intentioned U.S. anti-poison-gas efforts.

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