The wonder of American democracy is the fact that power can be transferred from one party to another peacefully and, at times, even graciously.
The reason for this, of course, is that the United States is governed by a Constitution that assures the power that is transferred is never absolute. Thus, a defeated party and its followers know that they are not consigning themselves to political oblivion when they cede their authority to another group of partisans.
The separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution, and protected by that document's system of checks and balances, was designed to assure that neither the executive nor the legislative branch of government could become so dominant that basic rights might be undermined or that the nation itself might be endangered.
There is genius in the design. But it is only fully functional when those who are entrusted with the duty of upholding the Constitution choose, in fact and deed, to do so.
That is the test of the new Congress. The Republicans who controlled the House and Senate but, by their own admission, failed to serve as an effective check and balance on the Bush administration's excesses, have now been consigned to opposition status. The Democrats, who promised a change of direction, have majorities in both chambers.
But the question remains: Have we seen a peaceful transfer of power, along the lines that the founders intended? Or have we merely shuffled some office assignments and changed the names on some doors?
The answer to those questions will come in the response of the new Congress to the excesses of the Bush administration.
Conveniently, on the eve of the swearing in of the Democratic House and Senate, the president set up a challenge that the new Congress can -- indeed must meet.
After signing an otherwise mundane postal reform bill on December 2O, Bush issued a so-called "signing statement" that claimed for himself sweeping new powers to open Americans' mail.
As with the warrantless wiretapping of Americans' telephone conversations, which Bush continues to authyorize, the president's claim of an authority to open letters and packages according to personal whim is contrary to existing law. In fact, this abuse of power is in conflict with the very postal bill he was signing -- not to mention with the privacy protections contained in the Constitution.
"The signing statement claims authority to open domestic mail without a warrant, and that would be new and quite alarming." says Kate Martin, the director of the Center for National Security Studies, who explains that "The danger is [that the administration will be] reading Americans' mail."
To be sure, that is a danger and it must be addressed.
But there is a deeper danger,
If this president is permitted to continue writing his own rules -- as did the British monarches against whom the American patriots of two centuries ago revolted. Bush is creating what Thomas Jefferson most feared: an "elective despotism." He is ruling, not as the servant of the people but as the "king for four years" that the drafters of the Constitution sought to guard against.
If power has been well and truly transferred to the new Congress, then Bush will be prevented from continuing to abuse his authority. The president's ability to spy and pry without warrant will be constrained, and his determination to trample the rule of law will be met with Constitutional remedies that the founders intended: censure and sanction.
John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal,Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into theintentions of the founders and embraced by activists for itsgroundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability.After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone politicalwriter Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "JohnNichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, TheGenius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less withthe particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and insteadcombines 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.'"
The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and atwww.amazon.com