Congress Can Lead the Way on Responsibility

Posted January 23, 2009 at 2:06pm

“What is required of us now,” President Barack Obama said in his inaugural address, “is a new era of responsibility.” The rich concept of responsibility was threaded throughout his address even though he did not use the word or fully explain it at every critical juncture.

Some of that presumably would be explained in a State of the Union address. Inauguration speeches are traditionally pitched at a higher level and focused more on vision and national and historical scope.

While his predecessors discussed similar themes, Obama is asking for an expanded concept of responsibility and one rooted in a very strong notion of activist government.

The issues, however, are quite complex, and some critical analysis may bear fruit.

Obama embraced a familiar distinction between legislative government responsibility and non-legislative individual responsibility, and he supported both sides of the distinction. But he relied more heavily in the end on the “faith and determination of the American people” to uphold the nation.

Obama has raised a very interesting and hard-to-pin-down notion of responsibility, one that is about the relationship between the work of Congress and the actions of individuals that are needed to implement what Congress requires.

The president’s 21st-century Keynesian call for new government actions to “build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together” was implicitly wedded to his call to “not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly” our responsibilities. First and foremost among those responsibilities is to give “our all” to our new collective initiatives.

He is saying that there are ways that responsibilities set down by Congress are related to responsibilities that depend on Congress but that Congress cannot legislate.

Consider a state law about appropriating funding for elementary school education.

A state law may provide a teacher with pay and benefits, but she only has to perform within a certain range in order to maintain her job and satisfy the responsibilities set forth in her contract.

If she puts in effort beyond what is required of her, then she is acting, as we sometimes say, beyond the call of duty, which in this place would be a contractual (legal) duty.

So if she stays after school one hour three days a week to help students with their volunteer projects in the community — and she is not required to do this — then we give her moral praise for surpassing her contractual responsibilities.

Likewise, the firefighter who charges into a building that his captain tells him not to enter because it is beyond an acceptable level of danger acts beyond the call of duty. We call him courageous, even heroic.

In both of these cases, the additional actions depend on the existence of a law but they were not required by the law. The laws were necessary but not sufficient for these actions to be executed.

These actions stand in stark contrast to individual responsibility associated with volunteering, whether this is volunteering for your church clothing drive, riding your bike in a fundraiser to end breast cancer or volunteering in a shelter for battered women.

Obama, of course, supports these forms of responsible behavior; indeed, his call to national service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was precisely this form of civic responsibility that he supports so passionately.

Yet it is the responsibilities that Congress cannot literally legislate but that depend on those they can legislate that are of the first importance to the president.

Consider: Obama thinks we need new laws that require new funding to address our massive economic crisis, but he also thinks politicians and citizens alike must follow those laws with a spirit and devotion that cannot be written into the statutes.

Congress can of course legislate that individuals or organizations or states follow the laws; indeed, it is virtually part of the concept of a Congressional law that it be upheld. We say things like “rights and duties are correlative.” So Congress may give individuals, organizations or states a right, and others have a duty to uphold the rights.

Whether a law — one that gives new rights or appropriates new funding for jobs that will build up our infrastructure — is upheld is a different question, and it is essentially the job of the president to enforce laws Congress passes.

It is not a defect of Congress that it cannot legislate these additional responsibilities in the same way that it is not a defect of a refrigerator that it cannot make toast; but it is instructive to appreciate why these additional responsibilities cannot be legislated.

The point is not that Congress falls short of its responsibilities; it is that the making of laws can only go so far, even if you factor in the leadership and statesmanship that can come from Congressional leaders.

No Congress, no president can literally be the spirit because the spirit must be in the hearts and minds of the American people, or at least a majority of them.

The president is telling us that government is necessary but not sufficient for certain ends to come about. Only individual faith and determination will bring forth the full meaning and potential of these new legislative initiatives.

Barack Obama’s genius is that he has convinced the American people to make him president so that he can work with Congress to make laws that the American people themselves will ensure are given their full meaning and potential through their actions.

David M. Anderson taught political ethics at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management for 12 years.