Thursday, March 22, 2007

System Crash: the Prosecutor Purge
Insomuch as anyone is trying to defend the Bush administration's decision to fire eight U.S. Attorneys late last year for what even sympathetic observers concede were political reasons, the justification offered is that these appointees serve at the president's pleasure: he can bring 'em in and ship 'em out as he wishes, without any particular cause or explanation. "No crime was committed" because there was no rule, much less law, to break.

Though liberals don't want to hear this, it happens to be true. To the best of my knowledge, no law was violated here. While the "Clinton did it" justification is as groundless as it usually is--Clinton changed them up at the beginning of his term, as many of his predecessors had done, and as Bush himself did in 2001--it's also irrelevant. If the question is, "Was Bush within his legal powers to fire the lawyers?" the answer seems to be an unambiguous "yes."

But, obviously, that shouldn't be the question. The reason this didn't come up before was that no president since Nixon has had anything close to the ambitions of the "Bushies" for trying to politicize, not only the Justice Department, but the entire executive branch. Despite the assertion of evil halfwits like Tom DeLay and John Bolton that the sole criterion for appointment and retention in a position should be personal loyalty to the president, the operating assumption traditionally has been that the president chooses these professionals, the Senate confirms them, and at that point they do their jobs to the best of their ability--without any consideration of partisan goals or consequences.

Of course, this premise was thrown off in the case of the fired U.S. Attorneys because of the provision slipped into the Patriot Act--the gift that keeps on taking, in terms of our democratic institutions--that during an "emergency," there was no need for Senate confirmation. (Happily, that provision was rescinded by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in a Senate vote earlier this week.) As with so much else in these sad last six-plus years, the hiring power for attorneys seems to have served the administration as nothing more or less than another way to reward friends--"loyal Bushies"--and punish enemies.

The concept of checks and balances is at the very core of our system of governance, and it's something that every American who attends public school learns about before puberty. But all the ways in which the Bushies have subjugated the public interest for explicitly partisan objectives makes me wonder if we need to address this question--to head off the potential for abuses that was always present, but never previously exploited--in a more explicit way. Whether it's new law, constitutional amendments, forceful Supreme Court decisions, or something else, we can't keep going with the door open to abuses no less corrosive for the fact that they might be within the boundaries of the law.

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