George Bush's presidency has been distinguished by nothing so much as his consistent disregard for the Constitution. He wages war without required Congressional declarations. He orders spying that is in direct conflict with the 4th Amendment. He permits tortures and extraordinary renditions that violate the 8th Amendment,
Above all, the President disregards the basic requirement of shared governance. He shows little respect for the separation of powers, let alone for the system of checks and balances that requires Congress to participate in domestic and foreign-policy decision making.
Bush's anti-Constitutionalism was on full display today, as he echoed claims by his aides that it is somehow inappropriate for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to travel to Syria--a county the White House has tried, with almost no success, to isolate from the international community.
"Going to Syria sends mixed signals, signals in the region and, of course, mixed signals to President Assad," Bush said. "And by that I mean, you know, photo opportunities and/or meetings with President Assad lead the Assad government to believe they're part of the mainstream of the international community, when in fact, they're a state sponsor of terror."
The President is upset that Pelosi has chosen to take seriously the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which recommended multilateral diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, as a means of promoting stability in the the violence-torn nation and the region surrounding it. Despite the fact that the ISG was essentially led by his father's former Secretary of State, James Baker, Bush II had rejected the sort of bilateral diplomacy that allowed Bush I to work so well with Syria during the tense days before and after the first Gulf War.
"Sending delegations doesn't work. It's simply been counterproductive,'' claims the Bush of the moment, illustrating once again the ahistoric approach to global affairs that has defined his presidency.
Just as the present President chooses not to be informed by the record of his father's era, he also rejects the intent of the founding fathers.
The Constitution makes clear that the Congress has broad authority to actively participate in foreign and military affairs. After all, the founders created the legislative branch as the first defined branch of government and afforded to it the power "to regulate commerce with foreign nations," "to define and punish... offenses against the law of nations," "to declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water," and "to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof."
House and Senate leaders have a long history of being regular travelers abroad, and they have sometimes overstepped their boundaries. Famously, according to documents obtained by the National Security Archives at George Washington University, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, secretly advised Colombian authorities to ignore the human rights requirements that had been attached to US military aid allocations made to Colombia during the Clinton years.
But, while there are always fine lines to be walked by traveling legislative leaders, there has never been any real question of the intent that they should travel, consult, gather information and otherwise prepare themselves to check and balance the executive branch's international initiatives.
Translation: Speaker Pelosi travels to Syria and other diplomatic hot spots with the encouragement of James Madison and George Mason, if not George Bush. No, it's not Pelosi's job to negotiate treaties or to engage in the fine-tuning of diplomatic relations. That is usually, and appropriately, the work of the State Department, where the secretary in charge serves, yes, at the pleasure of the president but, also, with the approval and the oversight of the Congress.
It is Nancy Pelosi's job to open and maintain the lines of international communication that allow her--and, by extension, the Congress--to be full and active participants in the forging of America's foreign policy priorities. She does so not as an interloper on executive authority but as the leader of a co-equal branch of the federal government of the United States.
John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"