The members of Congress are back in their districts and states this month, running hard for re-election.
Half a world away, there’s a problem those members are concerned about. A jihadist group labeled the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – sometimes also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – has been killing hostages from Western Europe and the United States in gruesome fashion.
The ISIL killers behead their victims and video-record the atrocities as a sick way of trying to score propaganda points. They have named as their next victim a young Hoosier, Abdul-Rahman Kassig, who seems to be an exceedingly decent young man. Born Peter Kassig, he converted to Islam and, after a tour of duty in the Army, he went to Syria on a humanitarian mission because he wanted to help people.
We know the members of Congress are concerned about the fate of Kassig and others who might be beheaded because our elected representatives say so.
Loudly and often.
They denounce ISIL as a collection of inhuman brutes. And they implore President Barack Obama to make the ISIL killers go away.
What the members of Congress don’t do is anything but talk about these brutalities. They could have taken a vote to declare war on ISIL – or even just to use force – but they chose not to.
Their reasons for doing so were cynical.
Democrats and progressives know their supporters don’t like wars in general, so they’re happy to let a lame-duck president who won’t ever have to face the voters again take the heat for any bombing raids to combat ISIL. By not taking action in regard to ISIL, Democrats avoid the dilemma of choosing between undercutting a president from their own party and alienating their own voters just days before the polls open.
Republicans and conservatives don’t want to do anything because they know they have President Obama in a box. If he doesn’t respond forcefully to ISIL, they can accuse him of being weak. If he does, they can say he’s dragged the country into another war.
Much of this is just about preserving the illusion that sustains both political parties – that there can be decisions without costs.
I’ve been covering politics for more than 30 years. There’s not much about the posturing that is part of campaigning that surprises me. The journalist who is offended easily doesn’t last long in the business.
But there’s something about this ISIL-avoidance political strategy that bothers me.
Some of it may be that the high school young Kassig attended – North Central High School in Indianapolis – is not far from where I live. My daughter competed in swim meets there. My son played football games on the North Central field.
It’s not hard for me to imagine what Kassig’s parents must be going through right now.
Maybe it’s also because determining whether we go to war is supposed to be Congress’ job, not the president’s.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution says Congress has the power “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.”
The founders gave that authority to Congress, not the president, because the members of Congress – particularly those in the House of Representatives – are supposed to be the ones closest to the people.
The founders wanted to create a system of accountability, a system that our elected representatives now want to evade.
The founders wanted to force the public officials who have to make the difficult decision to go to war face the voters soon after the decision was made. And they wanted citizens to grapple with what may be the most important decision a nation has to make.
The founders wanted the people to hold Congress accountable as elected representatives and they wanted Congress to hold the rest of us accountable for meeting our duties as citizens.
Yes, the members of Congress are running for re-election now.
They’re also running away from responsibility.
And we are helping them do so.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service published by Franklin College journalism students.