Along with venerable West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, Russ Feingold enjoys the relatively lonely distinction in the current Congress of having demonstrated something more than a passing familiarity with the Constitution that members swear an oath to support and defend.
So it is good, indeed, that the Wisconsin Democrat chairs the Constitution subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The fact that Feingold has actually read the nation’s essential document prepares him to resolve questions such as the one raised in recent days by Dick Cheney about where the Office of the Vice President can be found in the three branches of the federal government.
Cheney claims he is a member of the legislative branch, at least for purposes of accountability.
Does Feingold think there is any argument whatsoever for Cheney’s interpretation?
“Not really,” says the Senate’s chief overseer of all things Constitutional, stifling something akin to grin of a Cheshine Cat.
If Cheney’s attempt to classify the vice president as a legislator – in order to avoid requirements that his office comply with requirements the National Archives’ charting of the classification and declassification of important documents — were to be accepted, Feingold says, “I would have to go back and reconsider some of my answers on the quizzes when I was in elementary school. I would worry about my third-grade test results if I somehow got it wrong when I expressed this bizarre notion that the vice president was a member of the executive branch.”
But Feingold has no such worries. The senator earned honors at the University of Wisconsin for his commentaries on the history of the Constitution and then, after completing a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, he burrowed deeper into Constitutional studies at Harvard Law School, from which he graduated with even more honors.
Cheney flunked out of Yale, never got near a law school and has, throughout his long career of public self-service displayed a disregard for the Constitution unequaled in American politics.
Choosing his words carefully, Feingold says of the vice president’s pronouncements regarding the place of his office in the federal heirarchy: “I think he’s confused.”
To alleviate the confusion, the senator adds, “We may have to give him a little guidance on that.”
Does that mean that Feingold might use the Subcommittee on the Constitution to clarify the specific question – and to address broader and more serious concerns raised by a vice president who seeks to confuse and undermine the system of checks and balances that maintains the smooth functioning of the Republic?
“Oh, yes!” he replies, so long as Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, does not decide schedule a session of the full committee to help the vice president figure things out. (On Wednesday, Leahy issued subpoenas to Cheney’s office and the White House as part of the committee’s probe into collaboration with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to thwart the law with regard to the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.)
Either way, says Feingold, “What you do, just like we did on this issue of whether you can cut off funding for the war, is you hold a hearing and you bring in the experts. On the war, we had (former Assistant Attorney General and White House counsel) Walter Dellinger to say, ‘Of course, you can cut off the funding.’ You do the same thing on this. You bring in the Constitutional scholars. (Pennsylvania Senator Arlen) Specter even did one on the censure issue. That’s a good way to lay the foundation for a discussion of some of the issues that are raised by the vice president. The only problem I can imagine is that it might be difficult to find a serious constitutional scholar who would agree with Cheney.”
John Nichols’s book