America's problem is again a usurping king called George Bush's determination to impose his own reading of new laws amounts to a power grab and subverts the US constitution Martin Kettle Saturday June 17, 2006
Imagine a country with a different kind of monarch from the one we are used to. Forget the nation-binding human monarch whom Archbishop Rowan Williams praised so deftly this week. Imagine instead a monarch who, like many of Elizabeth II's ancestors, routinely reserved the right to override laws passed by the legislature, or who repeatedly asserted that the laws mean something they do not say. Imagine, in fact, King George of America. On April 30 the Boston Globe journalist Charlie Savage wrote an article whose contents become more astonishing the more one reads them. Over the past five years, Savage reported, President George Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws that have been enacted by the United States Congress since he took office. At the heart of Bush's strategy is the claim that the president has the power to set aside any statute that conflicts with his own interpretation of the constitution. Remarkably, this systematic reach for power has occurred not in secret but in public. Go to the White House website and the evidence is there in black and white. It takes the form of dozens of documents in which Bush asserts that his power as the nation's commander in chief entitles him to overrule or ignore bills sent to him by Congress for his signature. Behind this claim is a doctrine of the "unitary executive", which argues that the president's oath of office endows him with an independent authority to decide what a law means. Periodically, congressional leaders come down from Capitol Hill to applaud as the president, seated at his desk, signs a bill that becomes the law of the land. They are corny occasions. But they are a photo-op reminder that American law-making involves compromises that reflect a balance between the legislature and the presidency. The signing ceremony symbolises that the balance has been upheld and renewed. After the legislators leave, however, Bush puts his signature to another document. Known as a signing statement, this document is a presidential pronouncement setting out the terms in which he intends to interpret the new law. These signing statements often conflict with the new statutes. In some cases they even contradict their clear meaning. Increasing numbers of scholars and critics now believe they amount to a systematic power grab within a system that rests on checks and balances of which generations of Americans have been rightly proud - and of which others are justly envious. The Bush administration has often been charged with unilateralism in its conduct of foreign affairs. But a similar disregard for the rule of law underlies this domestic strategy. Article 1, section 1 of the US constitution states: "All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States." Section 7 says that if the president refuses to sign a law, the Congress can override him. But Bush has never vetoed a bill. Instead he signs bills into law and then unilaterally redefines them his way. The contrast between the rhetoric of the public ceremony and the self-authorisation in the later signing statements is large. Take, for example, the renewal of the USA Patriot Act on March 9. In the signing ceremony Bush stressed that the law had been a bipartisan effort involving Congress and the White House. In the subsequent signing statement, however, he states that he does not feel bound to report to Congress (as the act requires) and would "withhold information the disclosure of which could impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative processes of the executive, or the performance of the executive's constitutional duties". Or take the contrast after Bush signed an overwhelmingly supported congressional bill last year outlawing the torture of detainees. On the face of it the new law was explicit, strengthening what Bush described as "values we hold dear" and extending a domestic ban on torture to cover US actions around the world. But the signing statement on December 30 carefully undermined that claim. It asserted that "the executive branch shall construe [the law] in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president ... as commander in chief," adding that this approach would "assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the president ... of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks". In other words, circumstances might arise in which torture might still be authorised. The Bush White House did not invent the presidential signing statement; it goes back to the 19th century. But the frequency and ambition of Bush's signing statements go far beyond his predecessors. Whereas earlier presidents issued signing statements of a highly specific nature, those of Bush are repeatedly broad and unspecific. Above all, they make claims to enhanced executive power that impinge on profound issues of liberty such as torture or wiretapping. Too late in the day for comfort, Bush's approach is coming under greater scrutiny. In February the bipartisan Constitution Project warned of "the risk of permanent and unchecked presidential power". Last week the American Bar Association announced an independent inquiry into the practice. A powerful article in the New York Review of Books by the veteran writer Elizabeth Drew has also given the subject higher saliency. To their credit, even some Bush supporters are alarmed. If Bill Clinton had done what Bush is doing, the Republican senator Chuck Hagel has pointed out, Congress would be up in arms. If Bush were to bequeath the powers he claims to Hillary Clinton, the right would soon go berserk with indignation at the threat to American values. Which is why the most pertinent comment so far on the president's strategy has come from the anti-tax conservative Grover Norquist. He told Drew: "If you interpret the constitution's saying that the president is commander in chief to mean that the president can do anything he wants and can ignore the laws, you don't have a constitution: you have a king." It is not anti-American to warn about what Bush is doing. On the contrary, it is profoundly pro-American. In 1776 Americans issued their declaration of independence. They demanded a new form of government in place of the "repeated injuries and usurpations" to which they had been subjected. In the long list of grievances that followed, the first was that King George had "refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good". That suddenly has a contemporary ring. Now, as then, America's problem is a usurping king called George. email@example.com
Ninety thousand dollars in a Democratic Congressman's freezer. A Republican House Majority Leader indicted for money laundering, and a senior Republican thrown in jail for accepting bribes. Washington's biggest lobbyist thrown in jail for trying to buy off lawmakers. This is what the Washington Establishment and the media want America to believe is the worst form of corruption: a few dirty political hacks who had the nerve to violate our supposedly pristine democracy.
Certainly, these examples are egregious. But the intense focus on them by political leaders and the media to the exclusion of the real corruption destroying our democracy trivializes what corruption really is. That's not by accident -- it is a deliberate tactic of distraction, and shows just how bought off our political system really is.
Today, the lifeblood of American politics is money. Candidates must raise enormous sums of private cash to run for office -- sums that the wealthy and corporate interests are only too happy to provide in exchange for legislative favors. We are told by politicians that this system is "the greatest democracy in the world" when, in fact, it is very clearly the same form of bribery that has marked every corrupt regime looked down on by history books.
Money, of course, does not just buy favors -- it makes sure that the concept of corruption is only presented to the public by political leaders as anecdotes about a few bad apples, not a narrative about a broken system. Why? Because an indictment of the pay-to-play system that produced the bad apples could mean structural campaign finance reforms that challenge the power of the Big Money interests that underwrite our politicians. Thus, in the aftermath of recent congressional scandals, all we get is a pathetical discussion about weak lobbying "reform" proposals and even weaker sanctions against individual lawmakers.
Such narrowing of our political discourse is the most nefarious form of corruption of all. It shows how we now live in a country where the very boundaries of public policy debates are designed to ensure outcomes that never challenge Big Money interests. The truly corrupt interests that own American politics long ago realized that they do not have to pervasively violate our weak anti-corruption laws to get what they want. All they have to do is shower cash on as many lawmakers as possible. These lawmakers, uninterested in biting the hand that feeds them, consequently make sure the overall debate is rigged.
So, for instance, as America faces an impending energy crisis, the political debate emanating from Washington has been largely limited to a discussion of which new tax breaks to give to which major oil companies -- all of whom have doled out millions in campaign contributions to politicians.
Any serious discussion of a windfall profits tax on oil companies has been marginalized, even though polls show the public strongly supports the concept. Proposals to improve anti-trust enforcement as a way of slowing down oil industry consolidation -- that's not even talked about. And any consideration of a tough federal price gouging law has been met with propaganda claiming it is not needed. Just last week, the Federal Trade Commission -- headed by a former ChevronTexaco lawyer -- claimed there is no evidence of oil industry price gouging. This is occurring as Americans are paying more than $3-per-gallon for gas at the very same time ExxonMobil made more money than any corporation in history and gave its outgoing CEO a $400 million retirement bonus.
The same is true when it comes to health care. As health insurance premiums skyrocket and more Americans are forced to go with no insurance at all, polls consistently show that Americans want a universal health care system -- and are willing to make sacrifices to get one. Yet, almost no politicians in Washington are willing to support a government-sponsored, single-payer system like the one the rest of the industrialized world has. The reason? Because such a proposal could threaten the bottom line of the private health insurance industry, which makes massive donations to political candidates. Instead, the debate is limited either to proposals like Massachusetts' that simply forces citizens to pay high health premiums, or to proposals in Congress that would just hand over billions of taxpayer dollars to the private health insurance industry to minimally expand coverage.
Even on hot button issues like immigration, the debate is narrowed to fit Big Money's agenda. Think about it -- the political Establishment is having a supposedly intense debate over illegal immigration without even mentioning the corporate-written North American Free Trade Agreement. This is the pact that, more than a decade ago, was sold to Americans by President Clinton and Republicans in Congress as a way to improve the Mexican economy and drive down illegal immigration, but which actually drove millions more Mexicans into poverty and increased pressure at our southern border. Almost no politicians have even raised the concept of adding wage or workplace protections to the pact as a way to improve the Mexican economy and give Mexicans a better incentive to remain in their country -- because to raise that concept would be to challenge politicians' corporate campaign donors who want access to Mexico's impoverished, exploitable workforce.
To be sure -- politicians will continue their efforts to focus attention exclusively on the bad apples within their midst. They will then cite their own outrage as proof they are true "reformers." Just as they feed us false storylines about supposedly working for us when they are working for Big Money, they will tell us they are serious about fixing our broken political system, when they really are not. Because, as we see, when the cameras shut off, Washington's bipartisan establishment still refuses to embrace systemic reforms like public financing of elections that would actually end the pay-to-pay political culture.
We, the public, can hope and pray for change, and we can delude ourselves into thinking that a simple change in party control will fix our problems. But the simple truth is that until we go to the ballot box and punish representatives from both parties who are part of this consensus, we will continue to live not in a democracy -- but in a system of legalized bribery that makes our problems worse.
Let us say that I have been around the block a few times. So I have learned that I don't know much, and that I think that I am smarter than I really am. But I would like you to hear about my take on the world, on my original country, this country, this campaign, myself, my life, your life and how I believe that you should live it.