The 111th Congress is already busy reviewing and confirming President-elect Barack Obama’s Cabinet picks. The Senate intends to complete hearings for most if not all of the nominees by the time Obama takes office Jan. 20.
The Washington press corps will be so busy preparing how-to-get-around-the-inaugural-crowds-info-graphics that little energy will be expended on the hearings. And little in the way of news is likely: A barely functional Republican opposition will ask some appropriately tough questions of Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder (“Now, about Marc Rich”) and there may even be some tough questions from Democrats for Obama’s economic team (“Um, you were employed by Henry Kissinger for how many years?”).
A Founding Father seeking evidence of the checks and balances so carefully constructed to guard against executive tyranny would be hard-pressed to discover them in the Washington of 2009.
This is not Obama’s fault. He inherits executive powers so massively inflated by his predecessors George II and Prince Regent Dick that even he has said they must be diminished.
But presidents are not in the business of defining downward the authority vested in them. That is Congress’ job.
The work should begin immediately. Members of the House and Senate should assert that theirs is a co-equal branch of government. This need not be an affront to Obama. It is about identifying and condemning the excesses of the Bush era.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, has offered an ideal tool for accomplishing this: an Executive Accountability Act (which she proposed in the last Congress and should offer in the new one) confirming the sense of Congress that the new president should make a clear break with Bush/Cheney era excesses.
Baldwin’s House resolution suggests that Obama and his administration should:
1. Affirm our nation’s commitment to upholding the Constitution.
2. Affirm that it is the sole legal right of Congress to declare war.
3. Criminalize lying to Congress and the American people about the reasons for going to war.
4. Restore the writ of habeas corpus as an essential principle.
5. Ensure that torture and rendition are uniformly prohibited under U.S. law.
6. Immediately close Guantanamo Bay.
7. Ensure that Americans can bring claims against their government.
8. Take affirmative steps to protect documents from the Bush/Cheney administration and publicly reaffirm that the Office of the Vice President is part of the executive branch.
9. Review potential abuses of the presidential pardon process.
10. Reform the use of presidential signing statements.
11. Investigate the alleged crimes of Bush/Cheney administration officials and hold them accountable.
12. Hold accountable Bush/Cheney officials who failed or fail to comply with congressional subpoenas by supporting Congress’ right to the information it needs to perform its oversight functions.
13. Hold accountable Bush/Cheney officials who disclosed the identity of any covert intelligence agent.
14. Hold accountable Bush/Cheney officials who pursued politically motivated prosecutions.
15. Ensure that any Bush/Cheney official guilty of a war crime is prosecuted under the War Crimes Act and the Anti-Torture Act.
Members of Congress, who have just sworn to defend the Constitution, could best confirm that commitment by marking the transition from Bush to Obama with a rapid review and approval of Baldwin’s bill.
Is that likely to happen in this celebratory moment? Unfortunately, no. But Baldwin and others who take seriously the duty of defending our system of checks and balances ought to press the point–not as an insult to Bush or a challenge to Obama but as a means of returning this battered republic to its Constitutional moorings.