U.S. Senator Russ Feingold on Monday asked the Senate to officially censure President Bush for breaking the law by authorizing an illegal wiretapping program, and for misleading Congress and the American people about the existence and legality of that program.
If the Wisconsin Democrat’s move were to succeed, Bush would be the first president in 172 years to be so condemned by Congress.
Charging that the President’s illegal wiretapping program is in direct violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) – which makes it a crime to wiretap Americans in the United States without a warrant or a court order — Feingold argues that Congress cannot avoid facing the fact that fundamental Constitutional issues are at stake.
“The President must be held accountable for authorizing a program that clearly violates the law and then misleading the country about its existence and its legality,” says Feingold. “The President’s actions, as well as his misleading statements to both Congress and the public about the program, demand a serious response. If Congress does not censure the President, we will be tacitly condoning his actions, and undermining both the separation of powers and the rule of law.”
Feingold’s motion faces an uphill fight in a Republican-controlled Senate that does not appear to be inclined to make Bush the first president since Andrew Jackson to be censured by Congress. But it does raise the stakes at a point when the Wisconsin senator and civil libertarians have grown frustrated with the failure of Congress to aggressively challenge the administration’s penchant for warrantless wiretapping.
Republican senators have proposed rewriting laws to remove barriers to wiretapping, arguing that the president must have flexibility in order to pursue his war on terror.
But Feingold rejects the suggestion that changing the rules after the fact would absolve the president.
“This issue is not about whether the government should be wiretapping terrorists – of course it should, and it can under current law” Feingold said. “But this President and this administration decided to break the law and they have yet to give a convincing explanation of why their actions were necessary, appropriate, or legal. Passing more laws will not change the fact that the President broke the ones already in place and for that, Congress must hold him accountable.” Though the censure procedure is not outlined in the Constitution – as is impeachment – it is well established in the history and traditions of the Congress.
Jackson was censured in 1834 for refusing to cooperate with a Congressional investigation, and there have been many moves over the years to use the procedure to hold president’s to account.
In 1998, a then-new online activist group, MoveOn.org, proposed that as an alternative to impeaching Bill Clinton for lying to a grand jury and obstructing justice, the president could be censured. After rejecting impeachment in 1999, senators discussed censuring Clinton but failed to muster the votes to do so.