The Cowboy-in-Chief is the cowboy in charge. Top cowpoke. If George W. Bush wants to leak classified information that could endanger lives, he’ll do it if he wants. Eavesdrop on peaceniks? You betcha, if he wants, and if he chooses to classify antiwar activists as terrorist sympathizers, that’s what he’s gonna do. Why? Because he can. He’s leader of the free world, so he gets to call the shots. His band of outlaws rustled the 2000 election fair and square – that gives him the right to do as he pleases. Doesn’t matter if what he wants to do is immoral. He, after all, is the arbiter of morality. God told him so. And if what he wants to do is illegal, well, he’ll just ignore the law. The rules don’t apply to him. He says so.
Sound preposterous? Think again.
Over the past six years, Bush has challenged more than 750 federal laws (among them, torture bans, statutes mandating congressional oversight of presidential decisions, and Patriot Act provisions) under his assertion that the president has the right and the authority to bypass any law that disagrees with “his interpretation of the Constitution.” Of course, this declaration of his constitutional omnipotence was always done under the radar: After a bill signing, once media, lawmakers and guests had exited, he would at times issue a signing statement, a set of instructions detailing how he wants the new law implemented. In some instances, his instructions wipe out compromise provisions already agreed upon by both houses of Congress – and unless senators and representatives regularly read the federal register, where news of presidential signing statements are published (though not widely seen), they often are clueless about what has transpired.
In a way, one must admire the cleverness involved here, the sheer pluck. Bush spends a good bit of his time stumping for a line-item veto when in truth, he already has it. The only chief executive since Thomas Jefferson to serve six years without ever officially vetoing a bill sent to him by Congress uses another route to circumvent legislative-branch decisions, one that renders supposed lawmakers… Well, take your pick: Dumb. Impotent. Punk’d.
The journalists were no wiser than those in Congress. Mainstream media didn’t catch on until a tiny story about the White House, the National Security Agency and illegal-but-Shrub-approved domestic wiretapping brought Bush’s assertion of his unquestionable power to light.
From the Boston Globe:
Among the laws Bush said he can ignore are military rules and regulations, affirmative-action provisions, requirements that Congress be told about immigration services problems, “whistle-blower” protections for nuclear regulatory officials, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.
Legal scholars say the scope and aggression of Bush’s assertions that he can bypass laws represent a concerted effort to expand his power at the expense of Congress, upsetting the balance between the branches of government. The Constitution is clear in assigning to Congress the power to write the laws and to the president a duty “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Bush, however, has repeatedly declared that he does not need to “execute” a law he believes is unconstitutional.
If you declare yourself to be above the law, by definition, nothing, for you, is illegal. Surely that is the argument that White House flack Tony Snow, fresh from his recent lateral move, and the ever-dwindling ranks of Shrub loyalists will use to defend their boy againt the inevitable criticism, and it’s a fair point. If what Bush claims is true, he did not violate the letter of the law. Make no mistake, though: He surely is kicking the hell out of its spirit in the interest of grabbing power from the Congress and the courts for his own purposes.
White House legal staffers reportedly aren’t talking about the matter, but others in the know have much to say:
Phillip Cooper, a Portland State University law professor who has studied the executive power claims Bush made during his first term, said Bush and his legal team have spent the past five years quietly working to concentrate ever more governmental power into the White House.
“There is no question that this administration has been involved in a very carefully thought-out, systematic process of expanding presidential power at the expense of the other branches of government,” Cooper said. “This is really big, very expansive, and very significant.” …
“He agrees to a compromise with members of Congress, and all of them are there for a public bill-signing ceremony, but then he takes back those compromises — and more often than not, without the Congress or the press or the public knowing what has happened,” said Christopher Kelley, a Miami University of Ohio political science professor who studies executive power.
David Golove, a New York University law professor who specializes in executive-power issues, said Bush has cast a cloud over “the whole idea that there is a rule of law,” because no one can be certain of which laws Bush thinks are valid and which he thinks he can ignore. …”Where you have a president who is willing to declare vast quantities of the legislation that is passed during his term unconstitutional, it implies that he also thinks a very significant amount of the other laws that were already on the books before he became president are also unconstitutional.”
Bruce Fein, a deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration, said the American system of government relies upon the leaders of each branch “to exercise some self-restraint.” But Bush has declared himself the sole judge of his own powers, he said, and then ruled for himself every time.
“This is an attempt by the president to have the final word on his own constitutional powers, which eliminates the checks and balances that keep the country a democracy,” said [Bruce Fein, a deputy attorney general in the Reagan Administration]. “There is no way for an independent judiciary to check his assertions of power, and Congress isn’t doing it, either. So this is moving us toward an unlimited executive power.”
What does unlimited executive power look like? Imagine Bush waking up tomorrow with the notion that the right to free speech and expression is unconstitutional. Over the top example, I know. But if a president can place him or herself above the law at will, who is to say he or she will stop at some arbitrarily defined “safe” point? What happens if the commander-in-chief goes too far? What if, as many believe, he already has?
If, as Bush contends, he can disobey laws as he see fits, even if senators cry and moan about it, no meaningful checks or balances exist to protect the people from their supreme leader. Not one.
Can you say “dictatorship?”