Bob Schwartz

Tag: Congress

Cuba: No Democracy, No Embassy, So Recall the Ambassador to China

U.S. Embassy in Beijing

If you listen to those opposing normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, you learn that we should not do so until Cuba moves toward democracy.

With that rationale, we should be ending diplomatic relations with many countries, because no matter what our ideals and aspirations, the world still includes some fairly undemocratic nations.

Such as China. We have had full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China since 1979, a period that includes both Republican and Democratic Presidents and Congresses. There is no way to characterize China as a democratic, democratic-leaning, democratic-seeking nation. So we should immediately recall our latest ambassador, former Sen. Max Baucus, and immediately close our embassy in Beijing.

Of course, that doesn’t make sense. As nothing has made sense in our relations with Cuba, even before Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime in 1959. The U.S. supported Batista and opposed Communism in the hemisphere. Commercial interests, legal and illegal, made money. Once Castro was in power, and refugees of substantial and modest means resettled in the U.S., it was thought that isolating Cuba would make it come around to right thinking and lucrative democracy. That didn’t work, and neither did the one attempt at forcing the issue, the debacle of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

If we had given Cuba the benefit of the doubt that we have given other non-democracies, not to mention the money we have invested in those nations, some good might have come of it, with little downside. But as with many issues, politics in the form of financial support, or the threat of withholding it, distorts what may be for the best.

Which is why, with Obama moving to normalize Cuban relations, you won’t hear anybody calling for the closing of the Beijing embassy, but lots of grandstanding and bluster about how a Cuban ambassador will mean the end of the world.

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The President’s Speech: Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Enforcement

CRS - Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration

The following will not necessarily make you smarter than the hundreds—thousands?—of talking heads you will hear opining and pontificating about the President’s speech tonight on immigration. But it just might.

For those who haven’t followed this political drama, the President has long awaited Congressional action on immigration reform, and in the absence of that, has decided to take executive action. Reports are that this will include deferring legal proceedings against a large number of undocumented immigrants. Charges are already flying from political opponents, claiming that the President is exceeding his authority, with impeachment even being discussed.

It appears that the basis for this executive action may be prosecutorial discretion. As you may know (and as recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have highlighted), prosecutors have broad, virtually unlimited and unreviewable discretion to decide who to prosecute and not prosecute. There are principles and theories about how this discretion might be less than absolute, but as a matter of practice, it is quite broad.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is the very valuable but little-known non-partisan government service that answers questions that Congress has about any issue that Congress is interested in. You name the topic or issue, CRS has probably studied it.

Last December, CRS answered a question that is at the heart of the President’s approach to the immigration crisis: What, if any, are the limits on prosecutorial discretion in immigration?

The report, Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Enforcement: Legal Issues is a must-read. It is true that legal opinions on many issues differ (see the Supreme Court), but CRS is supposedly the starting point for any questions that Congress has. Congress members may have disagreements with the reports, but few question the impartiality or skill of CRS researchers.

CRS concludes:

Regardless of whether it is characterized as “prosecutorial discretion” or “enforcement discretion,” immigration officers are generally seen as having wide latitude in determining when, how, and even whether to pursue apparent violations of the INA [Immigration and Nationality Act]. This latitude is similar to that possessed by prosecutors in the criminal law enforcement context and enforcement officials in other federal agencies. Whether and how to constrain this discretion has been a recurring issue for some Members of Congress, particularly in light of the June 2011 DHS [Department of Homeland Security] memorandum on prosecutorial discretion and the more recent DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] initiative. While some Members have expressed support for the DACA initiative, or called for expanded use of prosecutorial discretion by immigration authorities in other contexts, others have sought to prohibit DHS from granting deferred action or extended voluntary departure to removable aliens except in narrow circumstances, or to “nullify” particular policies regarding prosecutorial discretion that have been articulated by the Obama Administration….

In addition, the degree of intrusion into executive enforcement decisions may also impact a court’s review of any congressional response. For example, legal precedent suggests that Congress probably cannot directly limit the President’s exercise of discretion by requiring that the executive branch initiate enforcement actions against particular individuals. On the other hand, Congress would appear to have considerable latitude in establishing statutory guidelines for immigration officials to follow in the exercise of their enforcement powers, including by “indicat[ing] with precision the measures available to enforce the” INA, or by prohibiting DHS from considering certain factors in setting enforcement priorities.

However, the existing judicial presumption that “an agency’s decision not to take enforcement action [is] immune from judicial review,” and the deference potentially accorded to an agency’s interpretation of its governing statute, suggests that such statutory guidelines would likely need to be clear, express, and specific. The use of “shall” in a provision of the INA may not, in itself, suffice for a statute to be construed as having provided enforceable guidelines for immigration officials to follow in exercising prosecutorial discretion. Absent a substantive legislative response, Congress may still be able to influence the implementation of DACA or other discretion-based policies by the immigration authorities, including by engaging in stringent oversight over the DHS program or by exercising its “power of the purse” to prohibit DHS and its components from implementing particular policies related to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion that Congress does not support.

Translation: Congress cannot force the executive branch to enforce particular immigration provisions, which means that an executive policy to defer enforcement is not subject to Congressional control. (This is as good a point as any to mention that President Obama has already overseen a record number of immigrant deportations and he is not “soft” on undocumented immigration). However, in the view of CRS, Congress has “considerable latitude in establishing statutory guidelines for immigration officials to follow in the exercise of their enforcement powers.” That is, Congress could exercise its will by simply passing laws on this significant issue. Or on any significant issue that it claims to be vexed about. But it won’t. So can you blame the elected leader of the American people for being frustrated, and choosing to do what he can to step in where the brave and bold members of Congress are—how to say this politely—too fainthearted to go?

Obama Speech: Is It ISIS, ISIL or IS, and What is a True Religion?

Obama ISIS Speech

This is not a comprehensive review of last night’s speech by President Obama about ISIS/ISIL/IS. But if you asked me to join the millions of reviewers, descriptors that come to mind are lukewarm, vague, uninspiring, insufficiently informative, tactical (the speech, not the plan), and blah-blah-blah.

Here is one paragraph that stuck out, because it reflects two issues that may not get enough attention:

And one of those groups is ISIL — which calls itself the “Islamic State.”

Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

What Is the Name of This Enterprise That We Are at War Against?

Is it ISIS, ISIL, or Islamic State? This is much more significant than whether the English transliteration of the name of the Egyptian President was Morsy, Morsi, or Mursi or the Libyan dictator was Gadhafi, Qaddafi, Kadafi, Gaddafi, or Gadafy. This is our new mortal enemy, and besides, all these IS names are in English.

Different nations and different news media have different approaches to this. The BBC, for example, has settled on Islamic State, apparently opting for whatever the organization chooses to call itself. What is totally strange about the “official” U.S. nomenclature is that at the highest levels, there is no consistency. The President prefers ISIL, while those in his cabinet regularly use ISIS.

One small matter about ISIL does deserve note. The full name is the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant. I challenge many in the administration, and many in Congress, and many in the media, to explain—without Google or cheat sheet—what the Levant is. For five hundred years or so it has described the land of the eastern Mediterranean, now roughly comprising Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and contiguous countries. The word comes from the French word for “rising”, as in the east where the sun rises. It isn’t much in use any more, outside of scholarly circles and, of course, in our latest war.

So please, President Obama, if you are gathering the support of dozens of nations and hundreds of millions of Americans, let’s all decide on what to call this organization that, in the words of Vice President Joe Biden, we will pursue to the Gates of Hell.

What is a True Religion?

“No religion condones the killing of innocents,” the President said. Without going into historic and contemporary detail, this is patently false. I believe the President knows better, but he didn’t want to get into a deep discussion, and instead just wanted to make a rhetorical flourish. If he doesn’t know, there are thousands of histories he can read and scholars he can consult, or even easier, news reports from the past few weeks, months, and years he can read.

If, however, he really did mean it, he has disqualified the majority of world religions from being classified as such. Which, by the way, plenty of critics of religion would applaud.

The President doesn’t have to be the Teacher in Chief, the Scholar in Chief, the Explainer in Chief, etc. Being Communicator in Chief is enough of a job, but if he just wants to say stuff for effect, without regard to its making sense or being true, we’ve already had plenty of that in years past, from those less smart or thoughtful than you. We get enough nonsense from many in Congress. Speak as if some of us are actually thinking about what you say. Because some of us are.

Do Something/Anything about ISIS? Would You Rather Have No Strategy or Bad Strategy?

Just Do It

President Obama candidly admitted that we have no strategy for dealing with ISIS, but that we are developing one.

Maybe too candid for the moment and his leadership position, but still a necessary truth. Necessary because no one on earth has a good strategy for dealing with that or the complex of situations around the world right now. For the religiously inclined, consider that Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed convening in the Situation Room would have a tough time figuring out what to do next, short of calling in the Big Gun and wiping the slate clean and starting again.

This hasn’t stopped Congress from urging a simple solution to this puzzle: do something/anything. This is an all-time irony, given that Congress is currently infamous for doing absolutely nothing, ever, no matter how important the problem and no matter how relatively simple the solution. If a number of the members had a sense of irony, we could all wryly laugh at this, except that their sense of irony is absent, along with a sense of duty, democracy, and Americanism (the real kind, not the fake). Some of these same members do seem to have a sense of justice, John Wayne frontier justice, which is unfortunately out of place in the liquid world of 2014 global politics and insurgency.

A few years ago, some thought that democracy would spread around the oppressed nations like an epidemic, like Arab Spring fever. But chaos is also an opportunistic contagion, and as those on one insurgent or imperialist front look at the other fronts multiplying, they see opportunity and seize it. It doesn’t help that the geography is claustrophobic. If you don’t know it, connect the dots from Iraq to Syria to Israel to Gaza to Egypt, Sudan, and Libya. And that’s just one pole of the current dynamic.

We have been tragically mistaken on strategy in the last three major American wars. One was an abject defeat, the other two—Iraq and Afghanistan—have sort of ended, with an indeterminate outcome, and withdrawal that may or may not last. Let’s pull back from partisan finger-pointing, and just admit that some situations—whether you choose to demur or however you choose to engage—may have outcomes, but may not have solutions.

You can be smart or stupid, fearless or timid, right or wrong, and you can still be overwhelmed by circumstances. That is, there is no “perfect” strategy, especially not with the way things are aligning. So no, you can’t wait for that perfect strategy. But you also shouldn’t rush in with the next idea that comes into your head, especially if that idea comes from some outdated playbook that has already proven itself ineffective in current realities.

“Just do it” sounds great, as long as you spend sufficient time really considering what “it” is and what the consequences and outcomes might be. Oh, and also, you might try being candid, as Obama has been, rather than making stuff up. Like about WMDs. Like about wars that will last weeks and cost nothing. Let’s leave that sort of unhelpful lying to fairy tale tellers like Vladimir Putin, who is not invading Ukraine, and to Putin’s admirers and portrait painters.

VA Health Crisis: Listen to IAVA

VA IG Report

We should listen to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America about this VA health system crisis.

As the name implies, IAVA represents the latest generation of American war veterans. They are in some ways the most attuned to the current realities and sensibilities of veterans’ issues in 2014. Not because they have been around the longest, but because they are native to the way things work, or don’t, here in the early 21st century in America.

Those realities regarding the health care crisis in the VA are shocking to some, but come as no surprise to those who have watched it happening, including Congress (both parties) and the President.

Is it fixable? What won’t fix it is political posturing, handwringing, or even the delayed but imminent departure of VA Secretary Shinseki.

What will fix it? Good policy well executed, without excuses or cover up. The IAVA can help with that.

In the wake of yesterday’s Inspector General Report about the Phoenix VA health system, IAVA CEO and Founder Paul Rieckhoff said:

The new IG report on the Phoenix VA is damning and outrageous. It also reveals the need for a criminal investigation. Each day we learn how awful things are in Phoenix and across the country. The VA’s problems are broad and deep – and President Obama and his team haven’t demonstrated they can fix it. As one of only two combat veterans, Senator John McCain’s call for Secretary Shinseki’s resignation is particularly impactful…

Today’s report makes it painfully clear that the VA does not always have our veterans’ backs. Even before this report came out, IAVA members were losing confidence in Secretary Shinseki and President Obama. At Memorial Day events across the nation, our members voiced outrage, anger, and impatience at the growing VA scandal. This new report only increases the belief that the promise to veterans has been broken. We are sharing this report now with our members and seeking their reaction. In the coming days, we will share the voices of our members with the President, VA leaders and those in Congress.

In the IAVA 2014 Policy Agenda, the VA health system was just one of a number of initiatives offered for consideration. On that score, IAVA recommends this (excerpted):

I. Establish a Presidential Commission to end the VA claims backlog.

II. Transform the Veterans’ Benefits Administration’s (VBA) adversarial culture…

III. Reform VA’s work credit and productivity evaluation system for claims processor….

IV. Outline the VA’s responsibility about the requirements to substantiate a claim….

V. Adopt the “treating physician rule” for medical evaluations for compensation and pension…

VI. Require appeals form to be sent along with the Notice of Decision letters in order to expedite the appeals process.

VII. Evaluate the Segmented Lanes work initiative to continually assess whether it is meeting the goals of fast tracking…

VIII. Report the intake of new compensation and pension claims on the Monday Morning Workload Report.

IX. Report separated statistics on the intake and processing of supplemental and original claims in the Monday Morning Workload Report…

XIII. Continue to engage veteran stakeholders in updating the VA Schedule for Rating Disabilities (VASRD).

XIV. Require the VA to accept a PTSD diagnosis provided from a qualified private medical provider.

X. Establish a model to accurately project the claims workload and the resource and staffing requirements needed to meet the demand.

XI. Make all disability benefits questionnaires available to private medical providers.

XII. Simplify notification letters to provide easily digestible, specific and clear information about the reasons for rating decisions.

XV. Allow the VA to incentivize private medical providers to furnish medical health records to the VA for processing.

XVI. Clarify and report accuracy ratings for each regional VA….

This is an agenda, and if the President and the good people of Congress want to adjust or add, that is their prerogative and duty. But you have to start somewhere, with something on the table, and this is a good place for that. If these warriors are smart enough and capable enough and honorable enough to fight our wars, they are surely able to suggest the smart, honorable, and capable ways of treating them when those wars are over.

Online Gambling and Real Life Guns: It’s About The Children

sheldon-adelson-615cs013012
A team of highly-paid ex-politico lobbyists are out there arguing against proposed bills in Congress to allow Internet gambling. Under one of these bills, a 12% tax would be shared between the federal and state governments, 4% and 8% respectively. That would be a lot of revenue in these hard times.

Gambling is an American and ancient tradition. Lotteries helped fund the American Revolution, which makes them practically sacred. In this case, the main opponents of digital gaming for money are the wealthy owners of real-world casinos and establishments, most visibly billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who helped bankroll Mitt Romney’s quest for the Presidency. No surprise there. The practice of online gaming, which already goes on with offshore sites, would expand dramatically, leaving bricks, mortar and showgirl spots with a severely reduced market.

Some of the arguments against the bills are, on their own terms, not entirely unpersuasive. Gambling does support hospitality and tourism, and if the already declining dollars drop further, there are going to be folks who lose their jobs in this challenged economy. It’s not clear that the entrepreneurs getting rich off this have the will and creativity to come up with substitute businesses that would replace those jobs. Gambling is also already a social problem, damaging lives and families, and what is bad gets worse with increased volume. The final big argument is, naturally, about “the children.” No matter what we try to do, the online environment is notoriously freewheeling, and there is no question that underage players would find a way to play, just as they get cigarettes and alcohol.

On the tourism question, cultural and social trends have always left some forms of entertainment and diversion behind while other new or more appealing ones prospered. Either you believe overall in the free market or not. People who say that government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers shouldn’t be telling the government to pick winners and losers.

Out of control gambling can be pernicious, no doubt about it. But the argument, one actually made, that the poorest in society would be unfairly burdened by the attraction of online gambling is under current realities absurd. First, because it is not clear that all the opponents of online gambling care so very much for the lower tiers of American society. Second, because government already endorses, promotes and profits from easy-access gambling that does weigh on the most vulnerable—the lotteries. With all the strains on government budgets, it is unimaginable what state some states would be in without those gaming dollars.

Then there is the ultimate trump card: the children. That score is easy to answer. On the scale of things kids shouldn’t be allowed to do, alcohol is number 2, tobacco is a close number 3, and then comes gambling. Number 1 is easy. Children should not have guns, should not live in an environment where guns are widely available and acceptable, and where guns are regularly used to shoot, injure and kill innocent people—including children.

So if you happen to see or hear any of those lobbyists shilling for Sheldon Adelson and his ilk, talking about how it is about “the children” and how we must protect them from the evils of playing online poker or placing a digital bet on an NFL game, ask them if guns aren’t a tad more dangerous, and ask them what they’ve done to seriously reduce the ubiquity of those guns and to eliminate the personal and social costs that those guns have inflicted on all of us.

There likely won’t be a good answer, at least not one that isn’t laced with equivocation, hypocrisy and protests of irrelevancy. It is relevant. Ask them to put the two side by side, the harm to children from online gambling and from guns, and tell them that the billionaires are free to make billions more on their casinos—just as soon as the guns get put away.

Barbara Jordan v. Ted Cruz

Barbara Jordan - Ted Cruz
Regular readers of this blog know about the late Representative Barbara Jordan, one of the great speakers in modern American history, and one of the most distinguished members of Congress in her generation. We have seen few like her in recent years—because there have been few like her at all.

She shares one thing and one thing only with Ted Cruz: both represented Texas citizens in Congress. Besides that, they might as well be from different planets—politically, morally, intellectually, rhetorically, in just about any category you can name.

Barbara Jordan was born and raised in a black district of Houston. To say that she transcended any challenges she faced is saying nothing: her talents and compassion took her to the height of American political respect and significance. Ted Cruz was born in Canada, an apparent embarrassment for him, given that he has renounced his Canadian citizenship. He was raised somewhere, though there is no way to tell that he is “from” Texas other than the designation on his office. He has probably visited Houston, though it doesn’t seem his kind of place.

While at Harvard Law School, Ted Cruz reportedly refused to study with students who did not have undergraduate degrees from Harvard, Princeton or Yale. Even the “minor” Ivy League schools like Penn or Columbia weren’t good enough. Barbara Jordan attended Texas Southern University and then Boston University Law School. Well below minor status. However, she was a national champion debater at Texas Southern, where she beat Yale and Brown, and tied Harvard. And, presumably, would beat Ted Cruz in debate too.

Barbara Jordan was a model of intelligent political pragmatism, toughness tempered by compassion. She believed that character was paramount. Her rhetoric, rated in the range of FDR, JFK and MLK, could be uplifting or withering. She never spoke for twenty-one hours straight because she never had to. But if she had, it might be mesmerizing, start to finish. Ted Cruz is the model of something.

A Senate filled with one hundred Barbara Jordans would not be to everyone’s ideological taste, but no one would worry that they were being hoodwinked or being used as part of someone’s ambitious scheme, or that the country was in existential peril. The nation would be better for it. A Senate filled with one hundred Ted Cruzes is something else—perhaps a sign that beyond just shutting down the government, we should just close the doors on the American enterprise entirely.

We miss you Barbara. And we need you.

Un-Americans in Congress

Capitol Flag
The first appearance of un-Americanism came during the American Revolution. Conservative colonists who remained loyal to the British crown were reviled by those who pledged their fortunes to a new and forward-looking vision. To the Patriots, the Loyalists were backward-looking un-Americans—even though “America” was not quite yet a reality.

The next appearance came during the Civil War. This time, a powerful portion of American citizens and leaders made philosophical and economic arguments that being a “real American” meant having the freedom to own people as property and, if that was taken away, the freedom to split the nation. Many other Americans disagreed, and in a war that took 620,000 lives, having a united nation and government was established as the bedrock of Americanism. Disagree and fight vigorously to change policy and direction, but when your initiatives threaten the integrity of that union, your Americanism is in question or even forfeited.

Right now, Republican members of Congress are on track to bring parts of the American government to a standstill, and probably damage a still-unstable American economy. This is un-American. Pointing fingers and trying to avoid accountability is childish; at least take credit or blame if the principles are so important. We need adult Americans. What we seem to be getting in some quarters are childish un-Americans. Nothing could be more sad or dangerous.

Syria Videos and the ASPCA

ASPCA Ad
Almost everyone knows the Sarah McLachlan television ad for the ASPCA, her haunting song Angel playing as background for heart-tugging scenes of cats and dogs. It is widely reviled and sometimes mocked: some viewers can’t lunge quickly enough for the remote. It is also one of the most successful fundraising ads ever, considered by some a game changer.

This weekend, supporters of a military strike against Syria are using a similar approach. Horrific videos of victims, especially children, in the throes of chemical warfare in Syria are now circulating.

Emotional rather than rational appeals have to be carefully calibrated. There may be a sense that the emotional appeal is a last resort, because your rational argument is weak or failing. Viewers may also feel unduly manipulated, even insulted, by the premise that they are too stupid or uncaring to get the point otherwise. Finally, disgust may take over, nearly making further appreciation of whatever good arguments there are impossible to hear.

The ASPCA ad worked not because people were entirely guiltily coerced into giving. Those who did manage to stay and were not turned off had an aha moment: you know, I thought about it some more, and I get the point. Animals are mistreated and homeless, something I care about, and I can help.

This is where the Syria horror show falls down. Even when those who aren’t disgusted to the point of numbness think about it, they have trouble getting the point because, even if there is or once was a focused point in Syria, it keeps shifting, as do the rationales, as do the discussions of outcomes.

If you give to the ASPCA, there is reasonable certainty that your donation will go to programs reasonably designed to help mistreated and homeless animals. If you give your approval and support to an attack on Syria, what exactly are you getting for that donation?

Extreme emotional appeals are not necessarily illegitimate; in some cases, as with the Holocaust, they are necessary. But care is the keynote, knowing exactly what you are saying in support of what you are showing. Right now, the Syria videos are being shown in the context of a bunch of different explanations. The audience is left not only with uncertainty about where it all leads or should lead, but with a diminished regard for the presenter. These are serious times, and when the presenter is the President of the United States, none of us can afford that.

Syria Indecision: Give Them A (Small) Break

Decision Tree
Hard cases make bad law.

This is a maxim of the legal process. Roughly, it means that cases with lots of moving parts, with lots of collateral considerations, with no clear and straight path to resolution, produce rulings that are unsettling and unsatisfactory and, worse, have limited or counterproductive effect down the road.

Maybe the corollary is that hard foreign cases make bad foreign policy.

The indecision of Congressfolk is usually vexing, as so many of them claim to be weighing the factors, all the while putting their finger in the air to feel which way the wind blows.

This decision on attacking Syria seems to be different. There are certainly plenty of politicians who are trying to look thoughtful as they assess potential electoral damage. But this situation is so complex that for the moment, despite the usual frustration as a voter and citizen, a number of the Senators and Representatives deserve a little bit of a break. A lot of them are understandably having real trouble figuring out what to do—as are many of us.

The complexity isn’t just the result of a force of nature, and isn’t even due entirely to Assad. President Obama may have handled Syria with some degree of insight, intelligence and integrity, but he has made a difficult situation much harder. It is now widely agreed that announcing a chemical weapon “red line” long ago without a clear plan—public or at least private—to respond if and when it was crossed was a mistake. This contingency plan did not have to be tactically certain: how much evidence to need, which particular sites would be targeted. But the much bigger strategic issues—objectives and the dizzying range of possible consequences, good and bad—should have been vetted in all sorts of venues, including Congress.

That didn’t happen. So in short order, we are discussing the international conventions on chemical warfare, the forensics of discovering the use of chemical weapons, our ability to execute a limited strike, all the more or less likely impacts of a limited strike, the interpretation of the history of all our recent wars, comparison of our current situation to all those wars, and even the question of what exactly war is. So we have the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff telling a House committee this week that an air strike such as the one contemplated would be an act of war, while Secretary of State John Kerry, sitting right beside him, begged to differ: “We don’t believe we are going to war, in the classic sense of taking American troops and America to war.”

Americans are also being asked to learn more about a country and civil conflict that was often regarded as a video clip, sound bite or talking point—including discovering the shocking news that two million people are currently refugees from Syria (including one million children), leaving their country at a rate of one million people every six months.

Among those more or less likely impacts, there is a possibility that even this small action could precipitate wider and deeper crises, ones that might make our previous (mis)adventures look relatively small. We can’t be sure, of course, of this or just about anything else right now.

That’s a lot to discuss and digest. But we only have a few weeks, or so we are told. So, while Congress may be the most disliked institution in the country, seemingly stuffed with people who are uncertain about the proper ratio of self-interest to national interest, on this they are going to get a brief pass while they really do contemplate a genuinely serious and complicated situation. But after that break, when confusion is no longer an option, because deciding is the reason they get the honor and the big bucks, we expect them to vote conscientiously and to explain their vote clearly and unequivocally.

One more small matter: If any of them do vote “Present” in the final roll call on this, they should be expected to fall on their sword and offer their resignation forthwith. With only an 11% approval rate (and dropping), Congress doesn’t have room for any more of that sort of mushy politics.