Time to rein in Bush’s presidential powers
“Change we can believe in” has been Sen. Barack Obama’s consistent battle cry throughout his campaign. Senator John McCain has joined the change bandwagon, differentiating his message by saying the choice is between “the right change and the wrong change.” As these two very different candidates tussle the other over the next presidency it is easy to forget the degree to which the incumbent president has fundamentally changed the United States in less than eight years.
No, I am not going to rehash comment on two costly wars, massively increased national debt, a dollar decline from $1 = 1 Euro to $1.60 = 1 Euro since 2000, massive increases in the cost of U.S. imports, a depressed housing market, auto industry and economy, soaring gas prices, weary and overcommitted American armed forces, costly national infrastructure repair issues, “Axis of Evil” nations freely ignoring U.S. calls for them to toe the line, U.S. diplomatic isolation on a number of issues, or climate change challenges, to name a few issues. No, the change I am referring to is the power grab we have witnessed by the executive branch of government at the expense of the judicial and legislative branches.
President Bush has mentioned a “unitary executive” in many signing statements, statements the president can append to any bill to explain his interpretation of what is meant, or to fundamentally change the meaning of the bill to his liking. On May 9, 2007, he also signed a presidential directive claiming what some call “dictatorial” presidential powers to be assumed during any catastrophic emergency.
This directive “Establishes a comprehensive national policy on the continuity of Federal Government structures and operations and a single National Continuity Coordinator responsible for coordinating the development and implementation of federal continuity policies…” All this was done believing a ‘unitary executive’ that could suspend the powers of the judicial and legislative branches of government would be needed in a national emergency of cataclysmic proportions.
Sen. Harry Reid, on March 9, 2008, said “It is time to place meaningful checks on the Bush administration’s ability to misuse the Patriot Act by overusing national security letters … congressional and judicial oversight protects the rights of innocent Americans and does not hamper the government’s fight against terrorism … the Bush administration has abused its power and the public trust, and it has proven the need for accountability. Congress must once again serve as the check on the executive branch that our founders intended it to be.”
Bush is not the first president to invoke the idea of a unitary executive, claiming that the Founding Fathers really meant to give more power to the executive branch than the average school kid is taught, but he has certainly pushed the bounds of presidential power further than before. This would be less concerning had Bush not called himself the “Decider,” or been on record as saying “If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.” Of concern is how he has increased the chance that a future president could claim absolute ‘unitary power’ using the excuse of a national emergency. The so-called war on terror is potentially a national emergency that arguably can never end, meaning the powers assumed by the unitary executive could be considered permanent.
Now I am not suggesting Bush is planning a coup or that, in times of crisis, a unitary authority with a clear and uncomplicated command structure would not be useful as a temporary measure in a crisis. It is, however, important to remember that dictators have gained power legally and democratically in the past 70 years using the excuse of a national crisis, and then later increased their unitary power legally and incrementally. The executive branch should govern with the advice and consent of Congress, and should act to defend the Constitution, not weaken it. We should always remember that it is healthy to question and challenge the extent of presidential power and that an expansion of presidential power might also mean a weakening of the democratic values we hold so dear.
The Founding Fathers established a government of laws and not men. Royalty and dictators have no place in the system they devised. It is up to each and every one of us to ensure that belief is never undermined by change that is “wrong.”