Congress & Courts Reassert Themselves?

June 7, 2006

Republican and Democratic House leaders join forces to protest the FBI search of a congressman's office. The Senate Intelligence Committee demands fuller briefings from the CIA. The Supreme Court hears a landmark case challenging presidential war powers.

After five years of a concerted White House campaign, there are tentative signs that Congress and the courts are beginning to push back against what has been the greatest expansion of presidential powers in a generation or more.

Those pushing back include some congressional Republicans and conservative jurists who have been among President Bush's chief allies. The efforts surely would intensify if Democrats won control of the House or Senate in November's elections – and with it the power to convene hearings and issue subpoenas.

"You ask, 'Is the tide shifting?' and I say, 'Maybe, maybe,' " says Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who has pushed for stronger congressional oversight of intelligence operations. "If you ask me if I still feel like a lonely voice, I would say that I feel like a member of a small chorus."

Some examples:

— House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, usually at war, issued a joint statement denouncing the FBI search last month of Rep. William Jefferson's congressional office as a violation of the separation of powers between co-equal branches of government. Their ultimatum that seized documents be returned is now the subject of negotiations with the Justice Department, which is investigating bribery allegations against Jefferson, D-La.

— The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 9-6 two weeks ago to demand that the administration notify all members of the committees about intelligence operations. The administration has bypassed the intelligence committees to inform only eight congressional leaders about such sensitive programs as the National Security Agency's warrantless-surveillance operation.

— Congressional Republicans and Democrats in March upended plans for a Dubai-owned company to take over some U.S. port operations, forcing the firm to promise to transfer the operations to a "U.S. entity." Outraged lawmakers weren't convinced when the president dismissed their national-security concerns as unfounded, and they weren't deterred when he threatened the first veto of his presidency to protect the deal.

— The White House and Congress continue to jockey over who has the last word on the treatment of terror suspects. Congress approved an amendment banning torture over the objections of Vice President Cheney. Bush signed the legislation in December but issued a "signing statement" in which he reserved the right to waive the ban, which he suggested violated his constitutional authority as commander in chief. Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner of Virginia and Arizona Sen. John McCain of Arizona, both Republicans, then issued a joint statement vowing "strict oversight to monitor" implementation of the law.

The dispute has delayed the release of a new Army Field Manual on interrogation this spring. The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that several senators say the proposed manual sets standards for terror suspects that violate the congressional ban.

The 'Nature of Our System'

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino says the administration has been able to meet Congress' concerns without conceding presidential powers. She notes that administration officials agreed to brief Intelligence Committee members last month about the NSA operation, reported in The New York Times in December, which includes wiretapping calls within the United States without warrants if one of the participants is abroad. The administration calls it the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

"There have been – and always will be by nature of our system – conflicts between Congress and the White House on the limits of executive power," Perino says. "But far from clashing, the two branches have worked well together on very difficult cases and generally made accommodations on issues, like the Terrorist Surveillance Program."

It's true that Congress generally hasn't used or even threatened to use its most potent weapons in a confrontation with the White House, such as issuing subpoenas or cutting off funding for programs.

Still, Bruce Fein, a Justice Department official in the Reagan administration, says Congress' attitude toward the White House is toughening a bit. "We're seeing, maybe, the embryonic stages of drawing the line and saying: 'Here. No more,' " he says.

In the courts, too, some judges in recent months have been more willing to scrutinize Bush's assertions of presidential power.

Judge J. Michael Luttig of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, who had been on Bush's short list of possible Supreme Court picks, last fall wrote a key opinion endorsing the administration's argument that the president could order Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen and suspected terrorist, to be held indefinitely in a military brig without charges.

But when the administration abruptly decided to charge Padilla in civilian court – apparently to avoid a possible Supreme Court reversal – the judge objected and tried to stop the transfer. Luttig, who resigned from the bench last month, warned of a "substantial cost to the government's credibility before the courts."

The Supreme Court is expected to rule this month in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, another case that could test presidential powers. Lawyers for Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's former driver, are challenging the administration's plan to put prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba on trial for war crimes in special military tribunals.

At issue: Does Bush's claim of presidential war powers override the protections of the Geneva Conventions?

Some historians say a pattern seen after previous threats to the nation's security – during the Civil War and World War II, for instance – may be repeating itself now that five years have passed since the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"In the first few years after a crisis emerges, the courts tend to be very deferential to the White House," says Phillip Cooper of Portland State University in Oregon, who studies separation of powers. "But what tends to happen is after two or three years of deference, then the courts may begin to take a hard look at what's going on … and remind the administration they don't have carte blanche."

On Saturday, the American Bar Association's board of governors voted to establish a bipartisan task force to investigate whether Bush has gone beyond his constitutional authority in asserting a right to ignore provisions of new laws. Bush has issued more than 750 "signing statements" – more than all previous presidents combined – that state his interpretation of new laws and sometimes declare that they infringe on his presidential powers.

For 30 Years, a Cheney Cause

Even before 9/11, Cheney had made restoring presidential authority a priority. As White House chief of staff for President Ford, Cheney found himself dealing with laws passed in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that constrained presidential authority. The 1973 War Powers Act, for one, restricted a president's authority to launch military action without congressional approval.

Later, as a Wyoming congressman, Cheney argued that Congress was "abusing its power" when it barred the Reagan administration from funding the Nicaraguan contras. The administration's efforts to evade the law by funneling profits from secret arms sales to Iran reflected "mistakes in judgment and nothing more," according to a minority report he helped draft.

Now, as vice president, Cheney has been in a position to resist and even reverse efforts by Congress to restrain the executive. In the administration's first months, the energy task force he chaired went to court to avoid disclosing the names of industry executives it consulted.

Recently, amid the furor over the NSA's warrantless-surveillance program, Cheney took a similarly hard line. "We have all the legal authority we need," the vice president said in an interview on PBS' NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, citing the Constitution and a congressional resolution passed soon after 9/11. And Congress' role? "We said, 'Look, if you've got suggestions, we're happy to listen to them.' "

The Bush administration has taken a series of actions to expand presidential powers: Enabling past presidents and vice presidents to restrict release of their papers after the 12-year period set in law has expired. Refusing to allow aides to testify before Congress about the federal response to 9/11 and to Hurricane Katrina, arguing that might discourage staffers from providing "unvarnished advice" in the future. Asserting wartime powers to ignore federal laws and international treaties when the president says national security is at stake.

"The administration has been very consistent," Cooper says. "At every turn the White House has issued a reading as expansive as possible for its own authority, a reading as narrow as possible of congressional authority, and in some cases pre-empted the courts."

At a rare session with reporters in December, Cheney expressed satisfaction with what the administration has achieved.

"The president of the United States needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired," Cheney said. "I do think that, to some extent now, we've been able to restore the legitimate authority of the presidency."

'In a Class' With Nixon, Wilson

Bush's actions and Congress' response matter beyond his own tenure at the White House. They set precedents for future administrations and courts, though presidential powers have surged and ebbed through U.S. history.

Legal historian Kermit Hall says Bush is "in a class" with Richard Nixon and Woodrow Wilson during World War I in extending presidential authority. Tom Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, says Bush has exceeded even the expansive view that Franklin Roosevelt took of the presidency during the buildup to World War II.

Analysts credit Bush's ability to prevail in large part to the aftermath of 9/11, which buttressed Americans' backing for a president with the power to battle a shadowy and terrifying foe. In the fiercely partisan climate of Washington, the Republican-controlled House and Senate generally have lined up behind Bush, not challenged him.

"For five years, this Congress has been breathtakingly supine in the face of the most aggressive assertions of executive power we have seen in modern American history," Mann says. Even now, he says, the House "blowback" over the Jefferson search "probably wouldn't have happened if we didn't have a president whose popularity is in the low 30s."

Bush's dismal job-approval ratings have made critics in Congress and elsewhere more willing to confront him. Another factor: As time passes since 9/11, the threat of terrorism remains a potent argument but may no longer automatically trump other issues.

Now, about half of Americans surveyed by USA TODAY/Gallup from Thursday to Sunday say the Bush administration has "gone too far in expanding the power of the presidency." About one-third say it has struck the right balance. Just 14% say it hasn't gone far enough.

Congress' outrage over the search of Jefferson's office hasn't struck a sympathetic chord with the public, though. In an ABC News Poll taken last week, 86% said the FBI acted properly.

Of two dozen letters to the editor to USA TODAY on the issue, many derided Congress for countenancing corruption. Several wondered why lawmakers hadn't shown equal outrage over, say, the warrantless-surveillance program. Not one praised the institution for defending separation of powers.

Even some lawmakers are skeptical about Congress' commitment to the issue. "This is a newfound interest," says Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. "I hope it extends beyond just protecting ourselves."


ABA To Investigate Bush’s Signing Statements

June 4, 2006

From The Boston Globe:

The board of governors of the American Bar Association voted unanimously yesterday to investigate whether President Bush has exceeded his constitutional authority in reserving the right to ignore more than 750 laws that have been enacted since he took office.

Meeting in New Orleans, the board of governors for the world's largest association of legal professionals approved the creation of an all-star legal panel with a number of members from both political parties.

They include a former federal appeals court chief judge, a former FBI director, and several prominent scholars — to evaluate Bush's assertions that he has the power to ignore laws that conflict with his interpretation of the Constitution.

Bush has appended statements to new laws when he signs them, noting which provisions he believes interfere with his powers.

Among the laws Bush has challenged are the ban on torturing detainees, oversight provisions in the USA Patriot Act, and “whistle-blower" protections for federal employees.

The challenges also have included safeguards against political interference in taxpayer-funded research.

Bush has challenged more laws than all previous presidents combined.

The ABA's president, Michael Greco, said in an interview that he proposed the task force because he believes the scope and aggressiveness of Bush's signing statements may raise serious constitutional concerns. He said the ABA, which has more than 400,000 members, has a duty to speak out about such legal issues to the public, the courts, and Congress.

“The American Bar Association feels a very serious obligation to ensure that when there are legal issues that affect the American people, the ABA adopts a policy regarding such issues and then speaks out about it," Greco said. “In this instance, the president's practice of attaching signing statements to laws squarely presents a constitutional issue about the separation of powers among the three branches."

The signing statements task force, which was recruited by Greco, a longtime Boston lawyer who served on former Governor William F. Weld's Judicial Nominating Council, includes several Republicans. Among them are Mickey Edwards , a former Oklahoma representative from 1977 to 1993, and Bruce Fein , a Justice Department official under President Reagan.

In interviews, several of the panel members said they were going into the project with an open mind, but they expressed concerns about Bush's actions.

“I think one of the most critical issues in the country right now is the extent to which the White House has tried to expand its powers and basically tried to cut the legislative branch out of its own constitutionally equal role, and the signing statements are a particularly egregious example of that," Edwards said. “I've been doing a lot of speaking and writing about this, and when the ABA said they were looking to take a position on signing statements, I said that's serious because those people carry a lot of weight."

William Sessions , a retired federal judge who was the director of the FBI under both Reagan and President George H.W. Bush , said he agreed to participate because he believed that the signing statements raise a “serious problem" for the American constitutional system.

“I think it's very important for the people of the United States to have trust and reliance that the president is not going around the law," Sessions said. “The importance of it speaks for itself."

Another member, Patricia Wald, is a retired chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, appointed by President Carter.

She said she had monitored the use of signing statements by previous administrations, but “the accelerated use in recent years presents a real question about separation of powers and checks and balances."

Wald also said she was especially interested in studying how signing statements affect the federal bureaucracy. As a judge, Wald said, she dealt with many cases involving challenges to decisions made by administrative agencies. She said that courts are deferential to such decisions because they are supposed to be made by objective specialists in the agencies. But a heavy use of signing statements could call that assumption into question.

“If Congress passes a law telling the people in the bureaucracy that `this is what you should do,' and the president signs it but attaches a statement saying `I don't want you to do it,' how is that going to affect the motivation of the bureaucracy?" she said.

The task force also includes several prominent legal scholars, such as Harold Koh , dean of Yale Law School and a former official in the Reagan and Clinton administrations; Kathleen Sullivan , former dean of Stanford Law School; Charles Ogletree , a Harvard law professor; and Stephen Saltzburg , a professor at George Washington University Law School.

Saltzburg — who was a Justice Department official under Reagan and the first president Bush, as well as a prosecutor in the Iran-Contra scandal — said he did not believe that signing statements were unconstitutional.

But, he said, frequent use of them could create bad perceptions about whether the US government obeys the rule of law.

“The president can say anything he wants when he signs a bill," Saltzburg said. “[But] what does it say about respect for the Constitution and for the notion of checks and balances to have the president repeatedly claim the authority not to obey statutes, which he is signing into law?"

Rounding out the panel are Mark Agrast , a former legislative counsel for Representative William D. Delahunt , Democrat of Quincy, and Thomas Susman, who worked in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel under both Presidents Johnson and Nixon , and was later counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Susman said he agreed to serve out of intellectual curiosity: “I think it's a fascinating subject," he said. The task force is chaired by Neal Sonnett , a former federal prosecutor. Earlier this year, Sonnett chaired a similar ABA panel of bipartisan specialists who studied the legality of Bush's warrantless spying program.

The earlier panel unanimously concluded that Bush should obey a law requiring warrants for such surveillance, or he should ask Congress to change the law, rather than simply ignoring it.

In February, the ABA House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly to endorse the surveillance task force's recommendations, enabling Greco to testify about the program before Congress.

Sonnett said he planned to run the task force in a similar fashion. The group will discuss the issues in telephone conference calls. They will also divide up issues to research for the report that will accompany any of their recommendations, circulating drafts until they reach a consensus.

The task force will make its recommendation this summer, Greco said, and the 550-member ABA House of Delegates will vote on whether to adopt its findings at a meeting in August.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, promised to hold a hearing on Bush's use of signing statements.

Specter pledged the action after an article in The Boston Globe described the scope and details of Bush's assertions concerning the laws in them.

Greco and Sonnett also said the Globe's coverage of signing statements had persuaded them to launch the task force


GOP Senator Comes Out Of The Rabbit Hole?

May 4, 2006

From The Boston Globe:

Hearing vowed on Bush's powers
Senator questions bypassing of laws

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, accusing the White House of a ''very blatant encroachment" on congressional authority, said yesterday he will hold an oversight hearing into President Bush's assertion that he has the power to bypass more than 750 laws enacted over the past five years.

''There is some need for some oversight by Congress to assert its authority here," Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said in an interview. ''What's the point of having a statute if . . . the president can cherry-pick what he likes and what he doesn't like?"

Specter said he plans to hold the hearing in June. He said he intends to call administration officials to explain and defend the president's claims of authority, as well to invite constitutional scholars to testify on whether Bush has overstepped the boundaries of his power.

The senator emphasized that his goal is ''to bring some light on the subject." Legal scholars say that, when confronted by a president encroaching on their power, Congress's options are limited. Lawmakers can call for hearings or cut the funds of a targeted program to apply political pressure, or take the more politically charged steps of censure or impeachment.

Specter's announcement followed a report in the Sunday Globe that Bush has quietly asserted the authority to ignore provisions in 750 bills he has signed — about 1 in 10.

Over the past five years, Bush has stated that he can defy any statute that conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution. In many instances, Bush cited his role as head of the executive branch or as commander in chief to justify the exemption.

The statutes that Bush has asserted the right to override include numerous rules and regulations for the military, job protections for whistle-blowers who tell Congress about possible government wrongdoing, affirmative action requirements, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.

Bush made the claims in ''signing statements," official documents in which a president lays out his interpretation of a bill for the executive branch, creating guidelines to follow when it implements the law. The statements are filed without fanfare in the federal record, often following ceremonies in which the president made no mention of the objections he was about to raise in the bill, even as he signed it into law.

Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, said via e-mail that if Specter calls a hearing, ''by all means we will ensure he has the information he needs." She pointed out that other presidents dating to the 19th century have ''on occasion" issued statements that raise constitutional concerns about provisions in new laws.

But while previous presidents did occasionally challenge provisions in laws while signing them, legal scholars say, the frequency and breadth of Bush's use of that power are unprecedented.

Bush is also the first president in modern history who has never vetoed a bill, an act that gives public notice that he is rejecting a law and can be overridden by Congress. Instead, Bush has used signing statements to declare that he can bypass numerous provisions in new laws.

The statements attracted little attention in Congress or the media until recently, when Bush used them to reserve a right to bypass a new torture ban and new oversight provisions in the Patriot Act.

''The problem is that you have a statute, which Congress has passed, and then the signing statements negate that statute," Specter said. ''And there are more and more of them coming. If the president doesn't like something, he puts a signing statement on it."

Specter added: ''He put a signing statement on the Patriot Act. He put a signing statement on the torture issue. It's a very blatant encroachment on [Congress's constitutional] powers. If he doesn't like the bill, let him veto it."

It was during a Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on the FBI that Specter yesterday announced his intent to hold a hearing on Bush's legal authority. Another committee member, Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, also questioned Bush's assertions that he has the authority to give himself an exemption from certain laws.

''Unfortunately, the president's signing statement on the Patriot Act is hardly the first time that he has shown a disrespect for the rule of law," Feingold said. ''The Boston Globe reported on Sunday that the president has used signing statements to reserve the right to break the law more than 750 times."

Feingold is an outspoken critic of Bush's assertion that his wartime powers give him the authority to set aside laws. The senator has proposed censuring Bush over his domestic spying program, in which the president secretly authorized the military to wiretap Americans' phones without a warrant, bypassing a 1978 surveillance law.

At the hearing yesterday, Feingold pressed FBI director Robert Mueller to give assurances that the bureau would comply with provisions in the Patriot Act and to tell Congress how agents are using the law to search homes and secretly seize papers.

Mueller said he saw no reason that the bureau couldn't share that information with Congress. But he also said that he was bound to obey the administration, and declined to promise that he would ''go out there and fight" on behalf of Congress if Bush decided to override the Patriot Act's oversight provision and ordered the FBI not to brief Congress.

Feingold also said Bush's legal claims have cast a cloud over a host of rules and restrictions that Congress has passed, using its constitutional authority to regulate the executive branch of government.

''How can we know whether the government will comply with the new laws that we passed?" Feingold said. ''I'm not placing the blame on you, obviously, or your agents who work to protect this country every day, but how can we have any assurance that you or your agents have not received a secret directive from above requiring you to violate laws that we all think apply today?"

Mueller replied: ''I can assure with you with regard to the FBI that our actions would be taken according to appropriate legal authorities."

Specter said that challenging Bush's contention that he can ignore laws written by Congress should be a matter of institutional pride for lawmakers. He also connected Bush's defiance of laws to several Supreme Court decisions in which the justices ruled that Congress had not done enough research to justify a law.

''We're undergoing a tsunami here with the flood coming from the executive branch on one side and the judicial branch on the other," Specter said. ''There may as well soon not be a Congress. . . . And I think that most members don't understand what's happening."