The election of Barack Obama to the presidency may have caused some Democratic members of Congress to think that the constitutional questions raised by the executive excesses of the Bush-Cheney era had been resolved, but it may have caused some Republicans members of Congress to start thinking about executive accountability.
But this personality-defined approach to our battered system of checks and balances is a throwback to the days of powerful monarchies, when the people of a country waited for the day when a bad king was replaced by a good king.
The point of the American experiment was to replace the monarchy of a bad king, George III, with a good republic where never again would liberty and the rule of law be subsumed to the whims of royalty.
Essential to the American struggle from the start was an understanding of the necessity of constraining the executive branch so that no president — be he (or she) good or bad — could serve as what Jefferson referred to as an “elected despot”.
Ceding too much power to the executive branch, Madison warned, would allow a president to serve as “a king for four years.”
Bush and Cheney served as monarchs, launching undeclared wars, spying illegally, authorizing torture and attaching signing statements to legislation with the intent of allowing themselves to operate outside the rule of law.
Obama may be somewhat more responsible on some issues. After all, he taught Constitutional law before swearing an oath to defend the document.
But to rely on one man, even a good man, to renew the system of checks and balances is as naive as it is dysfunctional.
Congress must act to renew the separation of powers and the whole of the Constitution.
“Over the past several years, serious questions have been raised about the conduct of high ranking Bush/Cheney Administration officials in relation to some of the most basic elements of our democracy: respect for the rule of law, the principle of checks and balances, and the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights,” argues Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, a key member of the House Judiciary Committee. “We must restore Americans’ faith that in a democracy, we follow the rule of law and that nobody – even the President and Vice President of the United States – is above the law.”
To that end, Baldwin has introduced the Executive Branch Accountability Act of 2009 (H.Res. 417), which calls on President Obama to reject and reverse the illegal actions of the Bush-Cheney Administration and to work with Congress to restore a proper balance between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.
“President Obama has already begun the work of reaffirming American values of justice and freedom. I commend him for his orders to close the detention facility at Guantanamo and prohibit illegal and immoral interrogation techniques,” argues Baldwin.
But, she adds, ” President Obama’s efforts to renew America must also include restoring executive branch accountability. We had an administration that spied on Americans, outed a covert intelligence agent, suspended habeas corpus, held people without charges and without access to counsel, and used torture and rendition. This measure lists steps President Obama can take to proactively prevent any further abuses of executive branch power and restore the public’s faith in our government.”
Specifically, Baldwin’s legislation, the Executive Branch Accountability Act of 2009 calls on President Obama to:
1. Affirm our nation’s commitment to uphold the Constitution;
2. Fully investigate Bush/Cheney administration officials’ alleged crimes and hold them accountable for any illegal acts;
3. Hold accountable Bush/Cheney Administration officials who showed or show contempt for the legal duty to comply with Congressional subpoenas; disclosed the identity of any covert intelligence agent; pursued politically-motivated prosecutions;
4. Ensure that any Bush/Cheney administration official guilty of a war crime is prosecuted under the War Crimes Act and the Anti-Torture Act;
5. Affirm that it is the sole legal right of Congress to declare war; Criminalize lying to Congress and the American public about the reasons for going to war;
6. Restore the writ of habeas corpus as an essential principle of our democracy;
7. Ensure that torture and rendition are uniformly prohibited under United States law;
8. Responsibly close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp; Ensure that Americans can bring claims against their government;
9. Immediately take affirmative steps to protect all Bush/Cheney Administration documents;
10. Publicly review potential abuses of the presidential pardon process; and
11. Further reform the use of presidential signing statements.
Here’s Baldwin explaining the legislation in a video statement released by her office.