A Litmus Test


I have something political to blog about, after all: my proposed litmus test for 2008 presidential contenders. Here it is. Every candidate for the presidency (and the vice-presidency, once we get to that point) should be forced to state for the record their view of the constitutional power of the executive branch.

Is there such a thing as a “unitary executive” power? Can the president simply sign legislation and ignore the parts he doesn’t like? If so, how is that different from a line-item veto, the unconstitutionality of which has been established? What are the limits on the president’s commander-in-chief authority? Are they different in wartime? What is the proper role of the vice-presidency, and what limits on its authority exist? To what extent is either office constitutionally empowered to act in absolute secrecy?

Since journalists are timid about putting any pointed questions to politicians these days, much less a string of them, a briefer way of asking these questions would be: Do you share the views of the Bush administration?

Anyone who answers in anything but a decided, unqualified, emphatic negative is unfit to hold any office in the executive branch.

It’ll be interesting to see if anyone asks any of the candidates about this. Maybe some of them will volunteer their positions without being asked. Maybe even make a campaign issue of it. I doubt it, though. Politicians don’t like to limit the powers of the office they’re seeking — GOP candidates for Congress during a Republican administration being the only exception. (The modern Republican congressman is something the founding fathers never imagined possible.)

6 Responses to “A Litmus Test”

  1. Michael Lasley Says:

    I would think this would be an issue that contenders would want to run on. I think both parties will condemn Bush’s administration for seemingly overreaching and whatnot.

    The problem is, if most Americans are like me, they don’t really understand the nuances of this issue. I really don’t — not in any substantive way.

    But politics isn’t my bag, baby.

  2. juvenal_urbino Says:

    For the most part, the issues aren’t really all that nuanced. If the Bush admin. is right, a president could launch the country into a war (or even a series of wars) without any buy-in from the country or the Congress, without having to reveal much of the conduct of the war to anybody, and without anybody being able to stop him/her. There would be nothing anybody could do until the next presidential election rolled around.

    Moreover, during this period, s/he would have the authority to conduct as much domestic spying as s/he felt necessary (again, without oversight), to curtail civil rights, and to imprison anyone — citizens included — without informing anyone, without a trial, without habeas corpus, and without even the right to an attorney. This imprisonment could last as long as the war was ongoing; and since only a president could say when the war was over, that’s the same thing as saying a president could throw anybody in prison for as long as s/he wanted to.

    Some proponents of this remarkable theory of executive power claim Congress can always end any war simply by defunding it, but this is completely disingenuous. First, they know perfectly well Congress will always be extremely loath to defund a war once a president has committed troops to battle. Second, under their theory of the unitary executive, even if Congress cut off the funds specified for war operations, there is nothing to prevent a president from simply shifting funds from other parts of the executive branch to the war.

    There’s not much nuance there.

    The issue of signing statements is a little nuanced, but still pretty stark. Basically, under the current theory, it’s an end run around the constitutional veto mechanism. The president doesn’t have to choose between signing or vetoing legislation; he can just sign it and ignore it — or ignore the parts he doesn’t like. Since there’s no veto, there’s no way for Congress to override it. The legislation is just dead.

  3. Michael Lasley Says:

    Well, when you put it that way…

  4. Al Sturgeon Says:

    You make it almost sound like a bad thing.

    And on Presidents Day no less.

  5. Michael Lasley Says:

    Yeah, I don’t think many journalists will be asking those questions — and if they do, they’ll be seen as the liberal media trying to influence voters to vote against Republicans. I think candidates will bring some of these issues up individually, but maybe not under the umbrella of executive power — more on taking the moral high-ground type of thing. Which is a different issue. Does that make sense?

  6. juvenal_urbino Says:

    It does, but addressing it as a moral-high-ground issue isn’t good enough. This theory of the executive needs to be rejected as a theory of the executive. It needs to be publicly identified as illegitimate by every serious contender for the office, and thereby put permanently to rest; something that will be recorded by history as an abberation.

    (I say that with the recognition that “permanently” in American politics means a few generations. We rehash pretty much every issue repeatedly, because somebody always comes along and re-decides that what everybody thought 50 or 100 yrs. ago was a bad idea was really a good idea, and we re-debate it. States-rights conservatives rehash issues settled by the Civil War, for example, in virtually every election, and in Supreme Court cases.)

    We need to avoid having the Bush admin. view become a constant thread in our political debates. It shouldn’t become an option in every presidential election, where one of the candidates rejects it and the other subscribes to it. We need to reject it and leave it behind.

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