Congress Stirs to Rein in the President

Congress Stirs to Rein in the President

Congress Stirs to Rein in the President

In the wake of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on warrantless spying, bipartisan efforts to rein in the Bush Administration’s exercise of executive power are gaining momentum.


The constitutional crisis facing the United States has only deepened as a result of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s testimony on warrantless domestic spying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday. Karl Rove’s well-publicized scheme to tar critics of the secret NSA program as friends of terrorism has fallen flat. Despite the committee’s indulgence of Gonzales’s stonewalling, the hearing revealed deep bipartisan concern about a presidency that defies all checks and balances. Committee chair Arlen Specter promised further hearings and said he would consider subpoenas for documents the Administration is withholding. These are the first indications that the institutions of restraint on presidential power, while comatose, may not be dead.

Further indications followed unexpectedly and quickly. The first was the call for a full Congressional inquiry into the warrantless spying program by Republican Representative Heather Wilson of New Mexico. A former National Security Council aide under George H.W. Bush, Wilson heads the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, which oversees the National Security Agency. In a New York Times interview Wednesday, she called for a “painstaking” review that would include not only classified briefings but access to internal documents and interviews with NSA staff. She also called for a briefing of the full House Intelligence Committee on the program’s operational details.

Lo and behold, Gonzales and Gen. Michael Hayden, deputy to the director of US national intelligence, showed up just hours later on Wednesday afternoon to brief the full House Intelligence Committee–for the first time ever–on the warrantless spying. Wilson claimed credit for the White House reversal but said, “I don’t believe it complies with the National Security Act, which requires that the committees be kept fully informed of intelligence activities.”

Meanwhile, the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, wrote a letter to Gonzales demanding answers by March 2 to fifty-one pointed questions about the warrantless surveillance program. And Specter announced he would introduce legislation requiring President Bush to have a special court examine the eavesdropping program.

These developments may seem like an earthquake after long years in which Bush scornfully defied all attempts at restraint and most of the Congress meekly acquiesced. But it is still a long way from effective checks and balances on executive power. The Bush Administration may still try to parlay its retreat into Congressional support for warrantless spying, just as it turned McCain’s anti-torture bill into a legalization of prisoner abuse.

Seeking Accountability

More forthright action is unlikely without public pressure. Turning Congressional concern into effective restraint will require a string of battles whose goal is not immediate victory but rather education of the public on why constitutional restraint on executive power matters. This kind of public education–from Congressional hearings to courageous civic resistance–is what finally terminated the criminal regimes of Senator Joe McCarthy and President Richard Nixon.

The next step toward any kind of accountability for Bush Administration criminality is to penetrate the wall of silence that surrounds Administration deceit. Leaks, ranging from the photos of Abu Ghraib to the Downing Street memos to the warrantless spying, have driven the anti-Bush backlash. Investigations like those proposed by Representative Wilson could well be the next arena.

The House Progressive Caucus has adopted an informal strategy of encouraging as many members of Congress as possible to introduce Resolutions of Inquiry. These ROIs allow members to pose factual questions to the President or Cabinet officials, and since the resolutions are privileged, relevant committees are required to report back to the House within fourteen legislative days.

In this session alone, Democrats have introduced twenty-two ROIs, the majority of which have centered on prewar intelligence, Plamegate and rendition. The assault began in July 2005, with Congresswoman Barbara Lee and others introducing a succession of seven ROIs in one month. The Downing Street memo ROI prompted extensive debate in the International Relations Committee about the role of Congressional oversight in relation to the war in Iraq, and while the resolution failed, the vote marked the first time all Democrats on the committee voted unanimously concerning Iraq.

On Wednesday, Progressive Caucus members turned their attention to questions of US torture and rendition. Representative Ed Markey’s resolution was one of three ROIs that came before the committee requesting documents on any person subject to torture after being transferred to another country by US officials. It won support from Republicans James Leach, former chair of the Banking Committee, and antiwar conservative Ron Paul, but it was defeated by the Republican majority. Representative John Conyers and others now have their sights set on the NSA spying controversy, with four more ROIs expected to come up in the next few weeks.

The Senate is anticipating its own battles over information access and Congressional oversight. Last December, in response to the Administration’s claims that Congress had access to the same intelligence as the President when deciding to go to war in Iraq, Senator Ted Kennedy offered an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Bill requiring the disclosure of the President’s Daily Briefs. The amendment passed with the support of Pat Roberts, Republican chair of the Intelligence Committee. The measure also included two other amendments requiring information on US rendition policy. In response, for the first time twenty-seven years, the Senate failed to pass an intelligence authorization bill because an unknown senator placed a hold on the bill. Kennedy has refused to back down, promising a head-on clash with the Administration.

Abuse of Presidential authority is likely to come up in other venues as well. A debate lies ahead on renewal of the Patriot Act. Senator Specter has promised to hold hearings on the Guantánamo prison. The Senate leadership has promised Intelligence Committee hearings on the abuse of prewar intelligence. Looking further to the future are Representative Conyers’s proposals for a special prosecutor, a vote of censure and a select committee to investigate impeachable offenses by President Bush. Human rights groups have recently brought suit to find NSA spying unconstitutional. And of course, there are the upcoming Congressional elections.

Foiling Rove’s Strategy

At the January meeting of the Republican National Committee, Karl Rove explicitly laid out a strategy to win the 2006 election by stigmatizing the Democratic Party as weak on national security. Bush, Cheney and Gonzales have followed Rove’s script in their aggressive defense of warrantless NSA spying.

Nothing would make Rove happier than to have warrantless spying and other abuses of presidential authority treated as a partisan issue of Democrats against Republicans. But they aren’t. As Al Gore recently observed, “Democrats as well as Republicans in the Congress must share the blame for not taking sufficient action to protest and seek to prevent what they consider a grossly unconstitutional program.” Specter told the Washington Post, “I think they are seeing concerns in a lot of directions from all segments: Democrats and Republicans in all shades of the political spectrum.”

One key to foiling Rove strategy is to treat government lawlessness as a nonpartisan concern. The combination of bipartisan complicity and bipartisan concern opens a new opportunity to split support for Bush’s criminal activities and to build a coalition to terminate them.

This is possible because Rove’s script isn’t playing so well even in the Republican Party. Insight magazine quoted Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska as saying, “I didn’t like what Mr. Rove said, because it frames terrorism and the issue of terrorism and everything that goes with it, whether it’s the renewal of the Patriot Act or the NSA wiretapping, in a political context.” Before the Gonzales hearing Specter said that the spy program of his own party’s President is in flat violation of the law. In a post-hearing interview with the Washington Post, Specter said of Gonzales, “He’s smoking Dutch Cleanser!”

The Republican resistance is even more impressive given an Insight magazine report that Rove has threatened to put any Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee who votes against the President on his blacklist, denying them political and financial support. Despite that, four of the ten Republicans on the committee, including South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, raised doubts about the legality of the NSA program.

Republican politicians are faced with contrary pulls. On the one hand they are fearful, as Rove warned them that the defection of even a few Republicans could be catastrophic for the 2006 elections. On the other hand, if the Bush Administration is crashing, they have an interest in distancing themselves from it so that they don’t go down with it. Then there’s always principle: Norman Ornstein, head of the American Enterprise Institute, estimates that a majority of Republicans in both houses, if polled in secret, would be concerned about the government’s invasion of privacy.

Another key to foiling Rove’s strategy is to focus on the fundamental issue of constitutional checks and balances on presidential power. The issue is not whether Republicans or Democrats care more about protecting Americans against terrorists; the question is who–in or out of either party–will stand up for the principles of constitutional democracy?

Conyers exemplifies what it means to articulate that frame. He told The Nation, “There is no doubt that our nation is at a constitutional crossroads, and the domestic spying scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. We can continue down the path of an out-of-control executive unwilling to account for his actions and a Congress unable to muster the will to challenge him, or we can return to a system of checks and balances, where Congress performs genuine oversight and stands up for our citizens’ rights and liberties.”

Such a frame both allows and requires the entire spectrum of Bush Administration criminality to be painted as part of the same picture: not just warrantless domestic spying but lying to Congress about weapons of mass destruction; conducting an aggressive war in violation of international law; engaging in torture of terror suspects; outsourcing of torture through “rendition”; secret prisons; use of white phosphorus and other illegal weapons in Iraq; and multiple other violations of national and international law. These are all actions that have been conducted and justified on the basis of an antidemocratic, anticonstitutional doctrine of unlimited presidential power.

None of this would be happening without the growing public distrust of President Bush and outrage over his debacle in Iraq. They underlie the Administration’s inability to keep Congress in line. They are also the primary reason Rove’s plan to wave the bloody shirt of 9/11 is less and less effective. But that growing alienation needs to find expression in a repudiation of those in high places who have committed and justified crimes–and an irresistible public demand that those who are supposed to hold them accountable step forward to meet their responsibilities.

Bush’s retreat on Congressional oversight of NSA spying is a small step, but it demonstrates the Administration’s vulnerability to a bipartisan challenge based on constitutional principles. What is at stake is not just punishing the crimes already committed by the Bush Administration but making it possible to prevent Bush and his successors from committing similar or worse offenses in the future.

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