Thursday, July 5, 2007

Bush and the Breakdown of Constitutional Government

The Bush Administration, with its wholesale contempt for the Constitution (lying us into a war, signing statements, promotion of torture, warrantless wiretaps and arrests, denial of habeas corpus, etc.) has shown us that the system devised by the Founders to prevent just such a usurpation of power can be circumvented. The questions that must be answered are 1) how it happened, 2) why it happened, and 3) how do we prevent it from ever happening again.

The first indication that this was going to be a dangerous Presidency occurred early in Bush's first term when it became clear that he was going to govern not as a man who had lost the popular vote and won the electoral vote in an, at best, dubious fashion (vote counts in a state governed by his brother, a Supreme Court with a majority of his party's appointees). But even those of us who were shocked by this creation of a mandate out of nothing could not anticipate all the horrors that followed.

It would easy to dismiss the Bush Presidency as the political equivalent of the " perfect storm": one party rule covering all three branches of the government plus 9/11. But a Constitution that works only under the best of circumstances is barely worth the paper it is written on.

So, what elements need to be redesigned? Clearly, the 9/11 attack, per se, could not be anticipated. But it is certainly reasonable to expect our Constitution to prevent the abuses that may reasonably be assumed to follow such an attack.

The Electoral College
Should we abolish this to ensure that the winner of the popular vote wins the Presidency? I have mixed feelings about the idea. Although it clearly can thwart, on occasion, the will of the people, just as the Senate's composition gives extra weight to those citizens who live in small states, Without these two institutions, citizens who live in small states might face an almost permanent disenfranchisement. Candidates running for office would ignore them; laws would be passed against the wishes of a, possibly small, but permanent minority. (I am assuming that the citizens of small states probably differ in significant ways from the citizens of large states.) And, let us not forget, Nixon was elected, not once but twice, with a majority of both electoral votes and popular votes.

Two-party rule
Should we prohibit control of both houses of the Congress by the same party as the President.? How we could do this, I don't know, but would it work? Well, Bill Clinton certainly would not have been impeached had one of the houses been in Democratic hands. And some of Bush's most egregious acts might have been prevented had one of the houses been in Democratic hands. We have, however, now learned that the opposition party, even when in control of both houses, is limited in what it can do with a runaway Executive Branch. And we shouldn't forget that FDR was unable to pack the Supreme Court even though his own party controlled both houses.

The Justice Department
One element common to the two most corrupt Presidencies in the past century, Nixon's and Bush's, was the transformation of the Justice Department into a powerful political arm of the governing President.

Is there, then, some way we could isolate the Justice Department from both the Presidency and the Congress without making it totally unaccountable?

The War Powers
The Constitution, explicitly and for sound historical reasons, put the power to declare War into the hands of the Congress, not the President. The founders did not want their new country to be embroiled in war after war initiated because of a power-hungry King. Yet, since at least WWII (I think), the Congress has ceded this power to the President. It has issued concurrent "support" statements when a President has authorized a military adventure or authorized a President to take "whatever actions are necessary", but it has not issued a clear and simple declaration of war.

What is it about the modern world that has caused the Congress to repeatedly, regardless of which political party was in control of either branch of government, fail to insist on exercising what must be the most important power granted to it?

Separate the roles of Head of State and Executive
Perhaps we need to to change our form of government into a parliamentary system in which the President has no real power other than to represent the country while a Prime Minister governs. Many of the citizens of this country, perhaps a majority at one time or another, invest the POTUS with almost mystical powers, a person who should not be criticized while in office because he is "THE PRESIDENT". This makes it hard for those in opposition to make their case when they object to the President's policies. At best, criticisms of the President are interpreted as criticisms of the country. In times of threat or war, their criticism is interpreted as a lack of patriotism, even treason.. A PM however, in parliamentary democracies like Britain, is just a politician who can be, and routinely is, attacked by the opposition.

Perhaps there are other things that could be done, but certainly something must be done because we have slid very far down the road toward dictatorship - if we have not already, for all practical purposes, become one.