Sat Jul 5th, 2008 at 06:34:34 AM EST
Congress has been timorously asking for the President to observe our systems of checks and balances to little effect. It is now time for action, even if it means some big names on the right become lauded as fallen heroes.
For more on pruning back executive power see Pruning Shears.
Our President seems to believe not in oversight but in "accountability moments" every four years when the population gives a strict up-or-down judgment on his performance. A thumbs up means a mandate for the entire platform. In some cases like Social Security and immigration the changes are shot down by a growing popular revolt, but essentially the whole package is considered affirmed. At that point Congress passes laws as directed by the President to properly implement the platform, and each policy is a black box to be blessed in the broadest possible terms with no debate or review involved. If Congress doesn't like that setup it is free to use the power of the purse to shut off funding and force voters to pick sides; the loser gets run into a ditch.
The results of such an audacious concept have been especially clear this week. First up is Seymour Hersh's blockbuster article in the New Yorker describing how the administration has bypassed Congress in its efforts to begin a war with Iran. Basically, Congress authorized money for covert operations to destabilize the Iranian government. Covert ops go through the CIA, but the CIA is required to report to Congress and is also the intelligence agency with the least enthusiasm for helping the White House invent convenient stories. Probably either of these is unacceptable and together are intolerable. So the activities were funnelled through the military, and suddenly no one on Capitol Hill needed to be told anything. Hersh's sources sound almost comically naïve: "Senior Democrats in Congress told me that they had concerns about the possibility that their understanding of what the new operations entail differs from the White House's." The administration has continuously demonstrated its "different understanding" of its need to submit to oversight since it took office. Your concerns are only beginning to dawn now?
Next, consider the news that the House Oversight Committee issued subpoenas for the President and Vice President's interview records from Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. It was issued because we still don't know all the relevant details over the compromising of a CIA operative. Since such an action has real (as opposed to fictional) national security implications it is important to know exactly what happened. Of course, finding out exactly what happened would put the administration somewhere on the political spectrum between Approval Rating Below The Mendoza Line and Would You Rather Resign Or Be Impeached? Perhaps unsurprisingly the DOJ flat out said it would not comply.
Here is where we get to the crux of the matter. I hate to put it in such stark and extreme terms, but the question Congress must now answer is, are you with the Constitution or with the President? The two have become irreconcilably opposed. I have basically accepted that Congress has by its actions declared itself in favor of all of the President's major policies. It approves of continuing in Iraq to the indefinite future, of torture, of warrantless wiretaps and "basket" warrants that make a mockery of the 4th Amendment, and so on. But right now its very relevance as a body is being challenged. I am all but certain that even a rump GOP would be able to effectively sound the alarms and shriek at the imperial (get used to that word) actions of a President Obama who makes obvious and logical use of powers currently being established. That would not mean our system of checks and balances was being upheld, however. It would just mean that Republicans are still able to shape the Washington narrative even as a nearly crippled minority.
Upholding the system requires action now, and it needs to be more than issuing paper to a contemptuous executive. If Congress really wants to defend its role and re-establish its relevance then the only options left are direct confrontation: Slap handcuffs on Harriet Miers and Joshua Bolten and let them sit in the House jail. Have the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on a contempt citation for Karl Rove, give him a deadline and tell him he will join his erstwhile companions if he does not show up. And yes, begin suggesting that the Attorney General may end up there as well if he continues to defy them. Let the right turn any of them into a cause célèbre if they want; let GOP leaders in Congress rush to their defense if so moved. Let the White House be the ones appealing to judges for relief for a change. There is too much at stake for Congress to continue its weak protestations. If nothing changes it will be responsible for a terrible precedent: That a President can, with enough arrogance, bullying and defiance, ignore Congress with impunity.