11 January 2020

Profiles In Courage

It is rare for a single vote by a single Congressman to be noteworthy, or even remarkable. Recently we have seen several remarkable votes by individual Congressmen--those willing to buck demands for party loyalty and unity in defense of larger principles. With so many politicians of all stripes pandering to their particular political base, we should take a moment to consider those who decided to take step back from the partisan divide.

Jeff Van Drew

At the climactic moment of the Democrats' vote to impeach Donald Trump over an allegedly corrupt phone call with the President of Ukraine, freshman Jeff Van Drew, the formerly Democratic congressman of New Jersey's 2nd District,  sacrificed his position within the Democratic Party to vote against the Articles of Impeachment. Shortly after the vote, Congressman Van Drew joined the Republican Party in Congress.

Ironically, Van Drew's stated logic for his vote was not because he supported the President, or agreed with him about the phone call. While President Trump has said the call was "perfect", Congressman Van Drew considered the call "unsavory". However, Van Drew did not find that sufficient cause to impeach the President and remove him from office. Far more preferable, he reasoned, to let the voters make that decision come next November:
No president has ever been removed from office, Van Drew, 66, points out. And to have a "small, elite group" of lawmakers do so when an election is less than a year away seems to him to be not only unfathomable but un-American.
For his vote, Jeff Van Drew was literally hounded from his own party. Not only did he receive the usual arm-twisting political negotiations from the House Democrat leadership, but the county chairman for his New Jersey district, Michael Suleiman made not-so-subtle hints that the party would abandon him come re-election--a potent threat given that Van Drew's district was evenly split between those supporting and opposing impeachment.

Jeff Van Drew did not have to vote against impeachment. He could have voted for it, he could have abstained, or he could even have voted "present", as Tulsi Gabbard did in her whimsical effort to craft a protest stance against both sides of the impeachment debate. His vote may very well have cost him his seat in Congress come re-election time, yet he cast it anyway.

Jeff Van Drew heard all the testimonies, saw all the transcripts, reviewed all the evidences against Donald Trump, and did not see where the Democrats had made a plausible case for impeachment.  Accordingly, he voted against impeachment. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Van Drew's assessment of the impeachment case against President Trump, we must acknowledge that, given his assessment, he cast the correct vote. 

For that, Congressman Van Drew deserves to be celebrated, not criticized.

Matt Gaetz

Matt Gaetz, the Republican two-term Congressman from Florida's 1st District, has emerged as one of President Trump's most vocal and passionate advocates in the House of Representatives. His demolition of Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged Russian malfeasance during the 2016 election stands as one of the most dramatic pieces of Congressional testimony in recent memory:

Congressman Gaetz has been equally ardent in defending Donald Trump against Democratic impeachment charges. During the House Judiciary phase of the impeachment inquiry, Gaetz was quite vigorous in taking on the legal "experts" selected by the Democrats to opine on the Constitutionality of impeaching President Trump, issuing a stern rebuke to Stanford Law Professor Pamela Karlan for using the President's son's name to make an awkward gibe at Donald Trump.
Congressman Gaetz is also a staunch anti-war advocate. When President Trump sought to remove troops from Syria, Congressman Gaetz was steadfast in opposing a bipartisan resolution to block the withdrawal.
Given this history, it should come as no surprise that Matt Gaetz would support a resolution reaffirming the Congress' authority in deciding when and where US troops go to war. Yet many Republicans are dismayed that he did exactly that, since the resolution (House Concurrent Resolution 83), was proposed by Democrats. For this most venal of political sins--voting with the opposition--Congressman Gaetz has been vilified across social media as well as in the legacy media.

Gaetz' logic is simple and straightforward: he views the power to authorize sending troops into war a 'non-delegable' power of Congress.
Congress has an obligation to weigh in on such matters, and no justification for remaining on the sidelines during such times. Given the text of Article 1, Section 8, Clauses 11 through 16 of the Constitution, it is absurd to suggest Congressman Gaetz does not have a substantive argument behind his position.

However, it would also be absurd to deny the Democrats very clear political motives behind the resolution: they intended it as an attack on Donald Trump. Congressman Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina) was not at all inaccurate when he derided the Democrats for mounting an apology to Iran and seeking a press release for election season:
Yet a plain reading of the resolution brought forward by the Democrats leads to a question: where is the rebuke of Donald Trump? The resolution acknowledges Iran as a leading state sponsor of terrorism, and Qaseem Suleimani as a principle architect of their terror strategy. The resolution affirms the United States' right of self defense, and very explicitly does not infringe on the statutory authority under the War Powers Resolution given the President to take action against imminent threats. The resolution calls for the United States to terminate any military actions being taken against Iran--but currently there are no military actions being taken against Iran. The resolution reiterates the duty of the President to secure Congressional authorization for using military force, but that is no more than what the Constitution requires.

Is it a rebuke of President Trump merely because the Democrats say it is? That is too facile a proposition by half. A rebuke would be for the Congress to disavow the Suleimani drone strike. A rebuke would be for the Congress to censure the President for that strike. A rebuke would be a finding the President acted inappropriately. None of these elements are in the text of the resolution.

Regardless of motive, the Democrats advanced a resolution reaffirming the Congressional mandates regarding war and the deployment of troops. Congressman Gaetz is enthusiastically supportive of Congress measuring up to its mandates--and, for that matter, so am I. 

Congressman Meadows gave a stirring condemnation of the Democrats' political motives for bringing forward the resolution. That condemnation certainly provides a solid justification for his voting against the resolution. 

Yet two things may simultaneously be true. It is possible for the Democrats to have the worst of motives and still articulate the highest of civic virtues--deference to the Constitutional order.

Congressman Gaetz could have gone along with the rest of the Republican Party and voted against the resolution. Congressman Gaetz could have simply voted "present". He did not do either, but instead chose to side with the Constitutional principle of the resolution rather than oppose its political mendaciousness. If one concludes, as Gaetz does, that Constitutional principles prevail above all other considerations, then one must also conclude that his vote is the correct one.

For that, Congressman Gaetz should be celebrated and not criticized.

Honorable Mentions: Collin Peterson, Thomas Massie, and Francis Rooney

Jeff Van Drew is the most visible Democrat who voted against impeachment, but he is not the only one. Collin Peterson of Minnesota also voted against impeaching Donald Trump, citing the clear lack of bipartisan support for the action.

Peterson has said he doesn't condone Trump's actions in the Ukraine matter that led to his impeachment. But Peterson bemoaned the lack of bipartisan support for the push. He said the Senate debate on whether to remove Trump from office would be a "show trial" further dividing the country.
Like Van Drew, Collin Peterson was not persuaded by the strength of the case for impeachment. As I have commented previously, the ultimate aim of an impeachment effort is to persuade the American people the President is unfit for office. In the eyes of men such as Van Drew and Peterson, the case simply has not been persuasive. As with Jeff Van Drew, Collin Peterson should be celebrated and not criticized for rising above blind party loyalty.

Similarly, Matt Gaetz was joined in voting for House Concurrent Resolution 83 by Republican Congressmen Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Francis Rooney of Florida. Congressman Massie echoed Gaetz' sentiments that Congress must be the arbiter of when and where US troops are sent to war:

Massie, in explaining his vote in favor of the resolution, said he supported Trump but was backing the legislation because “this vote is about exercising our constitutional authority, but more importantly, our moral obligation to decide when and where our troops are going to be asked to give their lives.”
Congressman Rooney also shared that view, and also expressed a desire for a fuller debate and articulation of a longer-term strategy regarding Iran.
In a statement Friday, Rooney listed several reasons to support the war powers resolution. First, he said that Congress must exercise its authority under the Constitution to declare war or approve military engagement.

“Unfortunately, ever since the Vietnam War there has been a steady and consistent evisceration of Congress’ role,” he said.

Rooney said there also was a need for a long-term strategy in Iran, with a focus on the differences between what the Iranian people want and what the government would provide.
While their votes have received less media attention than that of Congressman Gaetz, we should not overlook them in acknowledging those who look beyond the partisan politics of the moment to articulate lasting governing standards for the Congress and for the nation. 

Congress Is Not Built On Political Parties

Whether we agree or disagree with their particular positions, we should nevertheless celebrate all who discharge the duties of public office with thoughtful deliberation and allegiance to principles above party. Patriotism is not the sole domain of either Democrats or Republicans, nor is the desire for good and effective governance. Democrats are just as capable as Republicans of having reverence for the Constitution and the republican form of government it guarantees to all Americans.

Men like Jeff Van Drew, Matt Gaetz, Collin Peterson, Thomas Massie, and Francis Rooney are powerful reminders that the United States government--and the Congress in particular--are not constructed to represent the view of political parties, but to express the broad views of the entire electorate. Unlike the Westminster Parliamentary system of Great Britain, America's system of government gives precedence to the individual elected official and not to the party he or she represents.

Those representatives who buck the prevailing political winds remind us also that the Founding Fathers took a dim view of political parties, counting them as a necessary evil rather than a tool of statecraft.

The framers of the new Constitution desperately wanted to avoid the divisions that had ripped England apart in the bloody civil wars of the 17th century. Many of them saw parties—or “factions,” as they called them—as corrupt relics of the monarchical British system that they wanted to discard in favor of a truly democratic government.
When George Washington left office in 1797, he warned against political parties in his farewell address: 
To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government. 
All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.
In the final analysis, every Congressman is called to cast his or her vote for the best interest of his immediate constituents and for the interest of the nation as a whole. There is neither legal nor moral obligation by any Congressman to support either a "Democrat" position or a "Republican" position. Whichever side has the better of whatever debate is the position that merits the support of every Congressman, of ever Senator. It is the duty of every Congressman and every Senator to decide in the privacy of his or her own mind which side has that superior position.

Which is not to say partisan party politics are not influential. They are quite often overpowering. They are perhaps inevitable, but that does not mean they are beneficial. I will go so far as to argue that the vilification heaped on Gaetz and Van Drew demonstrate the malignancy of political parties. 

When the "D" or "R" after an elected official's name matters more than the principles they espouse and the agenda they promise to enact, the quality of governance they can deliver is irreparably damaged. When party becomes policy, the nation is worse off for it.

We owe it to ourselves to expect more than that from our public servants. We owe it to ourselves to demand more than that from our fellow voters.

We owe it to ourselves to lift up men such as Matt Gaetz and Jeff Van Drew as reminders that our government is built to serve the whole of We The People, and not for the elite few leading this or that political faction.

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