Suppose Democrats capture control of one or both chambers of Congress in November. A conservative would instinctively cringe. On the domestic front, Democrats still don’t get Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which teaches the superiority of free markets to government-regulated markets euphemistically styled “industrialization policy” or otherwise. Smith lacerated the economic philosophy of modern Democrats: “The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.” With Democrats controlling Congress, we could expect command-and-control laws requiring windmills on every farm, photovoltaic cells in every home, and hydrogen fuel in every car.
In foreign affairs, Democrats are stalled in the horse latitudes. They have no philosophical starting point. They sport no strategy for confronting the nuclear ambitions of Iran or North Korea, the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the growing friction between Japan on the one hand and China and South Korea on the other. Beating swords into plowshares and making war no more is not a strategy but utopian faith.
So conservatives should weep if Democrats prevail in the House or Senate.
But perhaps not.
The most conservative principle of the Founding Fathers was distrust of unchecked power. Centuries of experience substantiated that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Men are not angels. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition to avert abuses or tyranny. The Constitution embraced a separation of powers to keep the legislative, executive, and judicial branches in equilibrium. As Edward Gibbon wrote in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “The principles of a free constitution are irrevocably lost, when the legislative power is nominated by the executive.”
But a Republican Congress has done nothing to thwart President George W. Bush’s alarming usurpations of legislative prerogatives. Instead, it has largely functioned as an echo chamber of the White House.
President Bush has flouted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) for five years by directing the National Security Agency to target American citizens on American soil for electronic surveillance on his say-so alone. The president has defended his warrantless domestic spying with an imperial theory of inherent constitutional power that would empower him to open mail, break in and enter homes, or torture detainees, even in violation of federal criminal statutes. He has concealed details of the spying program indispensable to rational congressional oversight—for example, the number of Americans targeted, the earmarks employed to select the targets, or the intelligence yield of the spying. He has never explained to Congress why FISA could not have been amended to accommodate any unforeseen evasive tactics by al Qaeda in lieu of simply disregarding the law. Indeed, Congress has amended FISA six times since 9/11 at the request of the White House, and the Senate Intelligence Committee was informed by Bush’s Justice Department on July 31, 2002, that FISA was working impeccably. The president has also refused to disclose what legal advice he received to justify the NSA’s warrantless domestic spying at its inception. And Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez has confessed that President Bush is operating other intelligence collection programs that are unknown to Congress and the public and that will never be revealed, absent leaks to the media.
Republicans in Congress have bowed to the president’s scorn for the rule of law and craving for secret government. They have voted against Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold’s resolution to rebuke Bush for violating federal statutes and crippling checks and balances. They have resisted brandishing either the power of the purse or the contempt power (with which it can compel testimony) to end the president’s violation of FISA and to force full disclosure of his secret foreign-intelligence programs. Indeed, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, is sponsoring a bill that in substance endorses President Bush’s FISA illegalities and authorizes an electronic-surveillance program warrant that would enable the NSA to spy on Americans indiscriminately without the particularized suspicion of wrongdoing required by the Fourth Amendment.
Republicans in the House and Senate have been equally invertebrate in the face of presidential signing statements that usurp the power to legislate. In approximately 800 cases, President Bush has both signed a bill and declared his intent to disregard provisions he believes are unconstitutional, the equivalent of a line-item veto. For instance, he signed the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 prohibiting torture while issuing a signing statement declaring his intent to ignore the law in order to gather military or foreign intelligence.
The Presentment Clause of Article I, Section 7 gives the president but two options when presented with a bill passed by Congress: sign or veto the bill in its entirety. That was the holding of the Supreme Court when it found a line-item veto statute unconstitutional in 1998’s Clinton v. City of New York. The president is obligated to veto a bill that he believes to be unconstitutional; Congress may override that judgment by two-thirds majorities. In the 217-year history of the United States under the present Constitution, Congress has overridden only 28 constitutionally based vetoes, and on only one occasion did the override engender a constitutional battle between the president and Congress. Presidential signing statements further usurp the legislative power by resulting in the enforcement of laws that Congress has not passed. Members vote on all the provisions of a law collectively in the expectation that all will be executed if the president approves.
Signing statements also flout the president’s obligation in Article II of the Constitution to execute the laws faithfully. The Founding Fathers were acutely aware of the example of King James II, whose practice of suspending or dispensing with laws he believed encroached on royal prerogatives eventually occasioned his overthrow in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. With such precedents in mind, the framers of the United States Constitution directed the president to execute the laws without fail. The Republican Congress, however, has acted as a disinterested spectator while President Bush has stolen its legislative authority in plain view and exercised the tyrannical power of making, executing, and conclusively interpreting the law and the Constitution.
The most frightening claim made by Bush with congressional acquiescence is reminiscent of the lettres de cachet of prerevolutionary France. (Such letters, with which the king could order the arrest and imprisonment of subjects without trial, helped trigger the storming of the Bastille.) In the aftermath of 9/11, Mr. Bush maintained that he could pluck any American citizen out of his home or off of the sidewalk and detain him indefinitely on the president’s finding that he was an illegal combatant. No court could second-guess the president. Bush soon employed such monarchial power to detain a few citizens and to frighten would-be dissenters, and Republicans in Congress either cheered or fiddled like Nero while the Constitution burned. The Supreme Court ultimately entered the breach and repudiated the president in 2004’s Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. Republicans similarly yawned as President Bush ordained military tribunals to try accused war criminals based on secret evidence and unreliable hearsay in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention. The Supreme Court again was forced to countervail the congressional dereliction by holding the tribunals illegal in 2006’s Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.
Republicans have shied from challenging Bush by placing party loyalty above institutional loyalty, contrary to the expectations of the Founding Fathers. They do so in the fear that embarrassing or discrediting a Republican president might reverberate to their political disadvantage in a reverse coat-tail effect.
Democrats, for their part, likewise place party above the Constitution, but their party loyalty at least creates an incentive to frustrate Bush’s super-imperial presidency. This could help to restore checks and balances. For the foreseeable future, divided government is the best bet for preserving both the letter and spirit of the Constitution. If Democrats capture the House or Senate in November 2006, the danger created by Bush with a Republican-controlled Congress would be mitigated or eliminated.
But that only applies to the next two years. If Hillary Clinton wins the White House in 2008, conservatives should be equally zealous for Republicans to recapture Congress.