Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Executive Power, Again

I'm going to single out Hillary on this, but as I recall, Obama has said similar things:

She accused Bush of having expanded executive power to the detriment of the Constitution, while often operating in secrecy.

"I'll end the use of signing statements to rewrite the laws Congress has passed. I'll shut down Guantanamo, disavow torture, and restore the right of habeas corpus," she said.

"And I'll end the practice of using executive privilege as a shield against the public's right to know and Congress's duty to oversee the president."

There's a method, suggested in the Constitution and clearly evolved in the early 19th century, to resolve power struggles in the U.S. federal government. That method is not for a president, with the stroke of a pen, to undo previous policies that involved executive overreach. What Hillary is proposing is to end the problem of bloated executive power by an act of bloated executive power.

This is a crisis that a president cannot solve on her own. The office of the president is the defendant in this case, whether its incumbent is cooperating or not. The president is not his own judge.

Disavow torture and proclaim strict adherence to habeas corpus? Nothing would prevent her from undoing that decision later, or prevent the next president from picking up where Bush left off. Her proposal ignores the role of Congress in making laws, the role of the Supreme Court in interpreting how the laws apply to what the president is doing. It is dangerous in that it would create the appearance of a correction without the fact of one.

If there's one thing left and right agree in being concerned about, it's that the Bush Administration has pushed executive power into uncharted waters. Some might claim it is justified, but I don't think many are entirely happy with it: From domestic surveillance to war-making to economy-shepherding, his reach is unrivaled since Lincoln's.

The general agreement on that, I think, is easy to overlook. Bush's friends are disturbed, but they tend to discuss it privately, not blare it out. Bush's more numerous enemies tend to talk about specific cases, where there is room for vigorous disagreement over details. And they tend to force meta-narratives into the debate that can't be accepted by many who otherwise might agree with them.

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