Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cheney's long march

Here's an interesting piece by liberal law professor Sean Wilentz that highlights just how long Dick Cheney has been convinced that the power of the presidency as an institution is or should be virtually unrestricted. It notes that back during the Iran-Contra affair, after Oliver North had testified, admitting he had shredded documents and laws in pursuit of a higher cause and a presidential desire, Cheney, then a Congressman, was instrumental in writing a minority report (with the help of David Addington, who was than a young lawyer on the minority staff and is now his chief of staff).

As Wilentz describes it, "The Reagan administration, according to the report, had erred by failing to offer a stronger, principled defense of what Mr. Cheney and others considered its full constitutional powers. Not only did the report defend lawbreaking by White House officials; it condemned Congress for having passed the laws in the first place."

Citing snippets here and there, including Alexander Hamilton's comment about "energy in the executive" (out of context), it claimed that history "leaves little, if any doubt that the president was expected to have the primary role of conducting the foreign policy of the United States." And so, "Congressional actions to limit the president in this area therefore should be rebiewed with a considerable degree of skepticism. If they interfere with the core presidential foreign policy functions, they should be struck down."

That wasn't what the founders had in mind at all, and back in the 1960s, when I was becoming politically aware, conservatives were almost uniformly aware of this and generally suspicious of overweening executive power. James Burnham, an original National Review editor, wrote a whole book, "Congress and the American Tradition," making the case for a more active Congress in every aspect of policy, including foreign policy, and urging Congress to reclaim its rightful place from presidents who had become too powerful. But let a couple of Republicans become president and these supposedly principled constitutional conservatives morphed into virtual monarchists.

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