“On or after the first Monday in January but not later than the first Monday in February of each year, the President shall submit a budget of the United States Government for the following fiscal year.”
-- Chapter 11 of Title 31 of the United States Code, enacted as the Congressional Budget Act of 1974.
What are citizens to do when their government refuses to follow its own laws?
The answers to this question throughout history have been hugely unhappy. When individuals in government de-legitimize their own institutions by breaking the rules, rebellion, repression and general lawlessness have often been the result.
This is why the rule of law has been so central to happy, healthy and prosperous lives since Cicero was still in swaddling.
Americans have done better at this than anyone else, having inherited the love of the law from our British progenitors. The Founding Fathers took it a step further by ditching the idea of a monarch altogether and crafting what has become the world’s oldest and most revered national charter. The Constitution was a fulcrum point in human history and the greatest gift from the Framers to their nation: a government of laws, not men.
Americans got to witness something very unusual in human history when a court shooed some of the president’s appointees out of office because he broke the constitutional parameters for installing members of his government, as just happened to President Obama’s efforts to pack the National Labor Relations Board.
A man in command of the mightiest military force in the world, who lives a life of publicly funded privilege and protection, relented when a group of little-known judges declared him in violation of the national charter. That’s not how it has happened in most of history or in most places around the globe today.
When leaders refuse to follow the rules laid out for them, societies devolve very quickly indeed. Ask any Argentine.
Like many good things – true love, baseball, table manners – the rule of law only exists by the voluntary participation of all involved and a willingness to be subject to sometimes seemingly arbitrary requirements.
The rule of law is on display every time you see a coach or player stoically accept a clearly terrible ruling by an umpire or referee. We like that. It makes us admire those coaches and players. A love for the rule of law is seated deep within the American heart.
We love renegades, outlaws and rebels too, but usually when they are fighting tyranny and not in it for themselves. America was fascinated by John Dillinger but still loves Rosa Parks. And when it comes to those in positions of power, there is nearly no tolerance for those who refuse to submit to the rule of law.
Abraham Lincoln may have ignored the rules of habeas corpus and fudged West Virginia’s statehood, but was facing a crisis greater than any American president. And he redeemed himself by standing for election in 1864 rather than doing what would have been far more expedient and sensible and postponed the vote until after the war.
So it should be with some alarm that Americans observe their leaders now blithely ignore laws.
The law says that the president was to present his budget to Congress no later than Monday. Instead he sent a note saying that he would be late. He missed the deadline in both of the previous years, but this time wouldn’t even deign to say when he will comply with the law. Just that he wouldn’t.
The law also requires the Senate to pass a budget each year, but has ignored that requirement for the last three years.
Why? Because complying with these laws is hard, practically and politically. The irony being that the reason people create laws is to force individuals to do what they would otherwise not do. We do not have any laws demanding that people eat bacon. No compulsion is required when it comes to the king of cured meats.
Power Play is not suggesting that Obama is a burgeoning Putin or Peron, but the death of the rule of law doesn’t usually happen all at once. And whoever succeeds Obama will be starting with the rule of law already diminished, ready to be diminished further. Note that Democrats (including Obama) who complained about budgetless borrowing in the Bush era have become the worst offenders in history. Will their successors feel compelled to do the right thing with precedence for doing wrong already in place?
Governments that de-legitimize themselves eventually lose the consent of the governed, and what follows is not pretty. But that stands as a generational question. What will become of a government already held in odious esteem by the American people if it continues to break rules and fail to function? The thought is too terrible to consider this morning.
But there are immediate, practical consequences too.
Democrats say that these budget laws are just rules and that the activity is not criminal, just unfortunate. Plus, the Senate and the president eventually make things better by passing new rules undoing the old ones or, in Obama’s case, sending his regrets. And since Republicans are so stubborn about spending cuts, say the Obama Democrats, what’s the point of doing a budget anyway?
This afternoon, the Congressional Budget Office, will follow its charter and release a budget forecast for the next decade. The CBO’s task is made more difficult since there is no budget and hasn’t been since 2009. So the green-eyeshade gang will do its best to forecast based on what the current spending and tax levels are and by assuming that the government won’t partially shut down, or at least not for very long.
The results will be hugely depressing for everyone. The federal debt will be soar well above $20 trillion over the next four years. The gaping maw of unfunded entitlement programs and public employee pensions will gape wider still.
Like a plane on autopilot, the federal balance sheet will stay aloft but the mountain is looming larger every minute.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“The only way you are going to make a difference is to do what Australia did. You take away the existing guns… It's not going to happen here because you'd have insurrection. Seven percent of Australians had guns. Here, the number is somewhere around 50 percent of households. And we have a tradition and we have a Second Amendment -- you can't do it.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.