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President grabs power while Congress sleeps

By ROBYN E. BLUMNER
Published May 21, 2006


It's only three more years. That is the coldly comforting phrase used by people who can't wait until our destructive, intellectually limited president has permanently gone fishing.

But the changes that George W. Bush has made to our nation's constitutional firmament may not depart with the first family's bags. His disregard for the separation of powers has so dramatically distorted the office of the president that he may have engineered a turning point in American history.

Bush represents the flag-wavers who are long on enthusiasm but don't have any real appreciation for the nobility of America. It isn't our big, expensive military or our big, expensive economy that bestows greatness. It is our modesty. America's magnificence lies in its grounding principle that power must be diffuse. We built a system based on the assessed fallibility of man, where a president is limited by Congress, the courts and the Constitution.

But from the beginning, Bush has disregarded America's well-tested formula of calibrated and collaborative governing. His can't-think-of-any-mistakes presidency has stomped on comity and established a pattern of unilateralism that future presidents may well emulate.

Bush has taught tomorrow's leaders that, if there are no consequences for ignoring legal constraints on power and if no one stops you from conducting the nation's business in secret, you don't have to be accountable. He is ruling through the tautological doctrine of Richard Nixon, who told interviewer David Frost that as long as the president's doing it "that means it is not illegal.''

Nothing better illuminates Bush's contempt for American checks and balances than his abuse of the presidential signing statement. According to a Boston Globe report, Bush has asserted the authority to disregard more than 750 laws by essentially writing provisos into them - a power he stole from Congress.

The Republican leadership in Congress is standing by while its house is being pillaged. The power to write federal laws is Congress' alone. The president's duty, as expressly stated in the Constitution, is to faithfully execute the laws he signs, not to add asterisks on parts he intends to ignore.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert are joining in their own emasculation when they utter not a peep during this bloodless coup. I don't know why Republicans have a reputation for strength. When blindly supporting a president from your own party takes precedence over guarding Congress' historic role, "Republican leadership" becomes an oxymoron.

It is not just liberals who have recognized the danger. I challenge anyone to read an important new report by the libertarian Cato Institute (www.cato.org) and not be chilled. "Power Surge: The Constitutional Record of George W. Bush" is an unblinking 28-page analysis of our slow devolution into autocracy. Its message can be summed up with this quote: "Under (the president's) sweeping theory of executive power, the liberty of every American rests on nothing more than the grace of the White House."

A meek and pliant Congress is allowing this new paradigm to take root.

It wasn't until the White House started getting nervous about the confirmation prospects of Gen. Michael Hayden as CIA chief that it bothered to brief the full intelligence committees of the House and Senate on the domestic wiretapping and information-collection programs that had been operational for years. For the previous five months, the White House stonewalled lawmakers' questions on warrantless domestic wiretapping of Americans. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter was so frustrated that he threatened to cut off funding for the NSA's wiretapping program if the information he had requested was not forthcoming. But rather than rallying around Specter and standing firmly for the oversight role of Congress, his colleagues left him to flap in the wind, with an empty threat on his lips.

Where is Congress? Why is it that the revelations surrounding a secret database of millions of Americans' phone records, warrantless wiretapping by the NSA, secret overseas CIA prisons, memos excusing torture and other horribles authorized by Bush had to come from the press? The same press that, according to ABC News, is having its calls checked so sources can be unearthed. The same press that administration shill William Bennett suggested should be prosecuted under a 1917 espionage law for telling the American people the truth about what their government is up to.

Our lawmakers are MIA. They have handed the game board to Bush, and he has taken it and gone home. He now controls his pieces and theirs. But it wasn't their game to give away. It was ours.

Holding the executive branch to account for its actions, demanding that it respect the law and insisting that it fully report to Congress on its activities - these are nonnegotiable duties of Congress, because they are key part of our inheritance.

Being answerable to another is humbling. It makes you more careful in your actions. It requires that you consider how you will defend your decisions. George Bush has freed himself of this constitutional imperative and is showing the next president, and the next, how it is done.

[Last modified May 21, 2006, 08:19:34]


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