Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Elephantiasis of the Executive (Part I)
I don't think it's attracting all that much attention yet, but the battle lines are being drawn for what I think is a sorely needed debate about the Bush administration's executive power grab in the context of the war on terror. Since Arlen Specter's (probably innocuous) thinking-out-loud about impeachment on one of the Sunday morning blabfests last weekend, we've heard from Al Gore--who gave a blistering speech about the implications of Bush's wiretapping argument--standing alongside libertarian/right-wing nut Bob Barr... and now, some of the leading figures of the Republican movement, including Grover Norquist, David Keane of the American Conservative Union, and Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation.

The banner they've united under--and please take a moment to appreciate the severe cognitive dissonance this is causing me--is "Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances."

WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 /U.S. Newswire/ -- Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances (PRCB) today called upon Congress to hold open, substantive oversight hearings examining the President's authorization of the National Security Agency (NSA) to violate domestic surveillance requirements outlined in the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, chairman of PRCB, was joined by fellow conservatives Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR); David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union; Paul Weyrich, chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation and Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, in urging lawmakers to use NSA hearings to establish a solid foundation for restoring much needed constitutional checks and balances to intelligence law.

"When the Patriot Act was passed shortly after 9-11, the federal government was granted expanded access to Americans' private information," said Barr. "However, federal law still clearly states that intelligence agents must have a court order to conduct electronic surveillance of Americans on these shores. Yet the federal government overstepped the protections of the Constitution and the plain language of FISA to eavesdrop on Americans' private communication without any judicial checks and without proof that they are involved in terrorism."

These guys, especially Norquist, have spent virtually their whole adult lives (and in some cases going back into childhood) as the unmatched champions of Party over Country. And if you read down further into the press release, it's clear that they are far from spoiling for a fight with the administration that's done so much to advance their dreams of total partisan ascendance. Finally, the group (or at least this release) is silent on the larger questions of executive overreach that I'd like to come back to in a later post. Nonetheless, it's striking and encouraging that there are evidently some principles that the Republican Ultras will stand up for.

On the other side, of course, is the administration; its usual echo chamber on the right (Fox news, the warbloggers, etc), scary think tanks like the Claremont Institute, and a few people who evidently just believe in virtually unlimited executive power. People like the Bull Moose, who excoriates the "Bob Barr Democrats" while comparing George W. Bush to Franklin D. Roosevelt as presidents who "admirably" expanded the power of the office to fight mortal threats to the country.

I often read the Bull Moose as a political/policy thinker of great talents who makes compelling points in the service of ultimately indefensible, sometimes borderline-incoherent arguments. Worse, like all too many bloggers, he overreacts to personal attacks and probably goes further on the page (or screen) than he really intends. In this entry, he's at pains to make distinctions between the "great liberal" FDR, and Bush, who "has unfortunately too often practiced the politics of division and plutocracy." And almost buried within the bombast and attacks on "the impeachment left," he writes, "There should be a reasoned and rational discussion about the balance of security and liberty during wartime." Who can argue with that? Of course, he fails to make the obvious point that "reasoned and rational discussion" is not a very prominent feature of Rovian politics.

All that said, Bull Moose offers one point I find very hard to argue with in light of the larger conversation about checks, balances, and how the Constitution is supposed to work:

If the Moose had his druthers, we would have divided government with different parties controlling the Presidency and the Congress. Neither party should be trusted with complete control over government - genuine checks and balances are a virtue. In fact, America was operating quite well from '96 - '98 before the Delayicans along with the Veep's new buddy, Mr. Barr, advanced impeachment.

As a matter of reality, he's probably right that we must rely on competing party interests, not institutional ones, to ensure the balanced, slow-moving but prudent and consensus-driven government the Founders envisioned. Which is where I'll hopefully pick this up next time. (No promises, of course...)

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