Going to war, balancing a budget: similarities

In the winter of 1991, Joe Biden celebrated his swearing in for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate at a reception in one of Washington’s Senate buildings. A few weeks later, federal employees cleared the same 20-foot-ceilinged room of its celebratory trappings to make room for a Senate hearing chaired by Sen. Biden. President George H.W. Bush had recently declared war on Iraq, following its invasion of Kuwait, and an age-old debate resumed over whether the President can take such action without Congress’s prior approval.

A professor of history from a university in North Carolina appeared before the senators. He told them that while Congress could argue constitutionally that a President can’t declare war without its approval, history has shown that Congress is a timid lot when it comes to making such decisions. He said Congress has typically ceded that opening authority to Presidents, choosing to weigh in afterwards rather than taking on the political liability from the start. In other words, when it comes to tough decisions, Congress would rather the President stick his or her nose out into the storm first.

An analogous situation is underway in Delaware. With the state facing an unprecedented budget shortfall in the $780 million neighborhood, the General Assembly appears just as happy to lay low while Gov. Markell spends the opening months of his first term making the tough decisions necessary to balance the state’s budget.

The General Assembly must eventually approve the budget, but as long as it hangs back, its members can keep options open to point the finger of blame at the chief executive if the voters get up on their hind legs when the salary cuts and tax and fee increases go into effect July 1.

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