The Editorials of E. Desiderius

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Constitutional Irregularities Are A Serious Matter

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There was once a time when the branches of government operated independently and checked the powers of their compatriots. There is the tale of the young Congressman who asks a party veteran to meet some of “the enemy” minority party. “Son, the minority are the opposition. The Senate is the enemy,” replied old politician. It is this way no longer. Party loyalty has finally come before basic adherence to the rule of law. The Boston Globe, and others reported on Friday, March 24th, that President Bush has increasingly used the practice of “signing statements” or submitting an official document outlining the President’s interpretation of a new law. In the most recent case, the Bush administration used a signing statement to outright reject part of the renewed Patriot Act, requiring the Executive Branch to inform Congress of certain activities. Mr. Bush’s interpretation of the new law is that he is exempt from it.

This simply cannot stand. Mr. Bush’s adherence to his unitary executive theory flies in the face of half a millennia of political theory, not to mention almost two hundred and fifty years of political practice in this country. The executive branch is the executor of the laws, not their creator nor their interpreter. The oversight provisions passed by Congress were a directive by the legislative, law-creating arm of the government to the executive, enforcement branch, and the directive was clear: to report to Congress on their activities. Mr. Bush has simply decided not to comply.

Constitutional irregularities of this nature are a danger to a free society. This author is not implying that President Bush has dictatatorial aspirations, nor does he believe that Mr. Bush is creating a junta, or a police state, or planning a radical alteration of the constitution in a less democratic direction. What Mr. Bush is doing is radically redefining the executive in reckless pursuit of greater powers and fewer oversights, undermining the power of the legislatures and diminishing the effectiveness of our system of government. Our checks and balances are in danger. President Bush is implying that the executive is free to ignore clear directives from the legislatures, without a veto and without working within the political process. Legislators can exhaustively work to hammer out compromises and concessions in order to craft a comprehensive bill that satisfies many parties, only to have the president destroy their politicking with the stroke of a pen, leaving them with no oversight and no legal recourse.

President Bush is navigating outside well outside the spirit and the word of the law. Granted, other presidents have played fast and loose with the constitution during times of national crisis, but the War on Terror is likely be a multi-generational struggle, with no clear end or moment of victory. Presidents cannot have such broad and sweeping powers during such an ill-defined, long-term struggle. To fully grasp the nature of the danger of constitutional irregularities, one must look no further than Rome’s Republic, America’s political grandfather. The decline of Rome from a thriving Republic with a balanced form of government began slowly. Tiberius Gracchus, a liberal minded executive, had a land redistribution scheme that would not pass the Senate. He passed the bill through the Plebian assembly, which was technically legal, but violated a long-standing political custom. The senate responded by convincing another executive with veto power to veto his bill. Gracchus then used the Plebian assembly to strip his colleague of his office. Senators fearful of Gracchus’ powers and the possibility of him setting himself up as a populist dictator, later murdered him. Gracchus’ brother continued Tiberius’ reform plan with the same tactics and was also murdered. It was a crisis from which Rome never recovered. The next 60-odd years were wrought with constitutional irregularities, coup attempts and a breakdown of the once-mighty Republican system into civil war and the rise of the Emperors.

The point is not that there will be an American Ceasar. But simply put, democratic institutions are frail, and republics can quickly descend into chaotic mob-run reactionary states. America has been lucky enough to have responsible leaders, who have not generally abused the power of their offices, and who have invoked wartime powers under the rarest of circumstances and with greatest of hesitance. The President is abusing the power of his in the name of a genuinely frightening and radical political theory. It is a shame that the Republicans in Congress cannot see beyond the party line, and it is a shame that Democrats are again putting up the feeblest of protests.

-E. Desiderius

Posted by George Gordon | Friday, March 24, 2006 | E-mail this post

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