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May 8, 2006

Empire Breeds the Emperor


Bush's excesses and how to correct them

by Christopher Deliso

"If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator."
- George W. Bush

President Bush can't be blamed entirely for the old American republic's rush to empire (that process has been going on for many years), only for its accelerated, almost drunken, course toward that goal. And obviously, Bush is only a pale imitation of the Roman emperors who believed themselves to be divine; he only believes himself to be in direct communication with the Almighty.

So the issue is bigger than Bush. With military bases in 130 countries, it has become necessary for America's commander in chief to match the ambitions of a state aspiring toward full-spectrum dominance and the unprecedented control of earth and space.

In granting himself an ever expanding series of powers based on the alleged right to interpret the Constitution however he sees fit, Bush is well on the way to assuming the imperial throne. He has become a greater danger to the presidency as an institution than was even Richard Nixon. But at least Tricky Dick gave up eventually; Bush and his advisers have no plans for that. They are prepared to get away with as much as they can to take it all the way and so test the limits of the possible. This is, of course, perfectly fitting for an administration that believes it can make up its own reality as it goes along, without concern for that "goddamned piece of paper" or anything else.

A Dizzying Proliferation of Powers

Here is a short recap of the president's more imperial decrees.

Through his legal yes-men, Bush declared his presidential right to declare war without congressional approval. He declared his presidential right to conduct clandestine wiretapping of American citizens. He declared his presidential right to silence whistleblowers, even when their revelations would help improve national security. At the same time, Bush has declared the presidential right to ignore restrictions on torture and authorize its use, at his pleasure. And he has declared the presidential right to not disclose potential abuses of police powers arising from the PATRIOT Act, itself a legally dubious document.

And the real stunner Bush also declared that when a president discloses classified information, by virtue of his very personage it is automatically, almost transcendentally, declassified. Hail Caesar indeed!

Surreptitious "Signings"

How has he done all this? While Bush is (probably) not about to go so far as to rename the days of the weeks and months, as did Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, it's because he can slip his laws past quietly through "signing statements," the presidential privilege to revise completed legislation in private, in cases where a public veto would require sending them back to Congress. Bush has, during his tenure so far, issued signing statements on 750 laws and vetoed zero. He has thus revised over twice as many laws as did his father and Bill Clinton combined, while becoming the first president since Thomas Jefferson, over 200 years ago, to not veto a single bill.

According to the Boston Globe, "Bush's assertions have gone far beyond that of any previous president in U.S. history. Bush has applied his signing statements to more than 750 new statutes. His numbers are by far a record for any U.S. president, [legal] scholars say."

This clever tactic is designed to bring minimum attention to White House sabotaging of bills the president doesn't like, while also keeping him free of accountability. As Alternet explained, "while a presidential veto would require Congress to weigh in, and change the law if it appeared to be unconstitutional, those 750 signing statements are an effective way of influencing future legislation without facing any oversight."

Critics Emerge

If criticism of Bush seems to be peaking now, it's only because it's been late in coming and because 2006 congressional elections are looming on the horizon. The Cato Institute recently issued a well-publicized report, and more lawmakers have started to weigh in. "We're a government of laws, not men," quipped Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "It is not for George W. Bush to disregard the Constitution and decide that he is above the law." Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter charged that "institutionally, the presidency is walking all over Congress." And Massachusetts veteran Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy charged the Bush administration with "undermining the checks and balances that 'guard against abuses of power by any single branch of government.'"

Alas, where was this circumspection when 99 of 100 senators voted for the PATRIOT Act in 2001? And why was it fine with Democrats for Bill Clinton to bypass Congress in authorizing war against Yugoslavia two years earlier, but not now when Republican Bush claims the same right? After all, Kennedy blames Bush's excesses partly on "a compliant Republican Congress." Lamentably, it seems that blinkered partisanship has also contributed to the corruption of the presidency as an institution.

Indeed, as Carl Bernstein recently wrote,

"[T]he roadblock to a serious inquiry [of administration deception] to date has been a Republican majority that fears the results, and a Democratic minority more interested in retribution and grandstanding than the national weal."

There is, however, some small glimmer of hope in Sen. Specter's recent vow to conduct an oversight hearing in June on Bush's imperial power grab. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee attacked the president's "very blatant encroachment" on congressional authority, stating, "[T]here is some need for some oversight by Congress to assert its authority [regarding presidential signing statements]. What's the point of having a statute if the president can cherry-pick what he likes and what he doesn't like?"

The senator will "call administration officials to explain and defend the president's claims of authority, as well as invite constitutional scholars to testify on whether Bush has overstepped the boundaries of his power."

Judiciary Committee member Russ Feingold of Wisconsin the only senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act also backs the endeavor.

Sen. Specter is trying now to sound the alarm among his peers. "[W]e're undergoing a tsunami here with the flood coming from the executive branch on one side and the judicial branch on the other," he said in the above article. "There may as well soon not be a Congress. And I think that most members don't understand what's happening."

The Solution: Renounce Empire Once and for All

Will lawmakers learn their lesson? Back in 1999, noting the depressing partisan dynamic at work in the congressional furor over Kosovo, the LA Times prophetically surmised then that "the next 'collateral damage' caused by the bombing campaign may be to the laws and Constitution of the United States."

If the recurring tendency of presidents to interpret their rights to control war and peace, among other things, is to be stopped, now and forever, Congress must agree that there is law, and there are limits to presidential excesses and that these should apply to all presidents, not just the ones elected by the opposing party.

Unless the other branches of government get their acts together, it won't just be Congress that gets "walked all over," as Sen. Specter put it. Echoing him, Alternet perceives that "without a push back from the other branches of government, the path is paved for future presidents, regardless of their politics, to single-handedly interpret the Constitution any way they see fit."

It is exceedingly rare to expect any leader enjoying arbitrarily expanded powers to relinquish them voluntarily. Bush is no exception. He has proved to be the most aggressive, most reckless, and most corrupted of modern American presidents in his desire to take more and more power for himself; in so doing, the temporary resident of the Oval Office might well make it much harder for future Congresses to control future presidents.

But really, the problem here, upon which everything else rests, is America's imperial passion. So long as America persists in its crazed delusions of empire, it will need an emperor and probably, with each election will elevate one more crazed and deluded than his predecessor. Now, George W. Bush thinks he just talks to God; yet should America acquire the power to control the weather and zap whole countries from outer space, what president could resist mistaking himself for God?

And so, as long as the temptations and trappings of empire remain, there will be little incentive for any future president to undo the damage done by relinquishing the powers President Bush has so forcefully asserted. Indeed, as George F. Will noted in a trenchant recent critique, "perhaps no future president will ask for such congressional involvement in the gravest decision government makes going to war. Why would future presidents ask, if the present administration successfully asserts its current doctrine?"

Despite what narrow-minded Bush-bashers might think, changing the president alone will not solve the problem. Unless the country's leaders desist from empire-building and return to the republic and so that more humble foreign policy then-candidate Bush promised six long years ago America will continue the imperial slide, going the way of all empires before it, perhaps even before the completion of that imperial palace now being erected in the sands of ancient Babylon.

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  • Thomas Gale Moore is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in economics and has taught at Carnegie Institution of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Michigan State University, UCLA, and in the Stanford Business School. He has written numerous peer-reviewed economic articles and several books.

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