On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress took a final vote in favor of independence from Great Britain. For two days the delegates debated the precise wording of Thomas Jefferson’s brilliant document, which contained his list of grievances against King George III. After some deletions, the historic version of the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4. We still celebrate that occasion every year, at least with fireworks.
Benjamin Franklin wisely pointed out, “They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security.” The position of the government of George III was that the English colonists should help pay for their protection. Taxes were levied by the members of the Parliament who “virtually” represented every individual in the British Empire. We, on the other hand, demanded our rights as Englishmen: “No taxation without (direct) representation.” Laws that affected us should be passed by our own representatives. Franklin was right.
Today, we have the U.S. Constitution, which provides us with a popularly elected Congress to pass our laws. It also provides for a President of the U.S., whose job, among other things, is to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” But, my fellow Americans, we have a problem!
George W. Bush has signed more than 700 laws passed by Congress that he has no intention of enforcing. He has followed them with “presidential signing statements” saying that since he doesn’t like them he’s not going to carry them out! This has been done with advice from former White House counsel and now attorney general Alberto Gonzales! Remember the anti-torture bill pushed by John “I-want-to-be-the-next-president” McCain, in which the Congress went on record supporting the Geneva Convention? Mr. Bush signed it into law and then immediately trashed it with a signing statement. Lackey McCain stood there smiling, knowing he had accomplished nothing other than a political step toward the presidency.
Constitutionally, the President can veto any bill that he dislikes. The Congress can then override his veto with a 2/3 vote. At that point, the President is required to enforce the law whether he likes it or not. So, what’s going on here? What has happened to our constitutional system of separation of powers and our system of checks and balances? How did we get to the point where we have a president who thinks he can do whatever he wants?
Instead of “signing statements,” Richard Nixon would “impound the funds” of any law or program he disapproved of. He simply would not spend the money that had been appropriated for enforcement. The Congress would then file suit, take the Nixon Administration to court, and get a court order for Nixon to do his job. It was frustrating and maddening, but it was the path of least resistance.
In the early ‘70s, I recall the great historian Henry Steele Commager being interviewed on PBS’s Bill Moyers’ Journal. He facetiously said that Nixon must have read the Constitution at some time in his life; he just didn’t understand it. Commager, of course, knew full well that Nixon understood the Constitution perfectly. Nixon simply didn’t like it. The Constitution places restraints upon the presidency that anyone who seeks absolute power cannot abide.
The attorney general, whose staff had to defend Nixon’s illegal “impounding of the funds,” was John Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell was also the attorney general who, as chairman of Nixon’s reelection committee, approved the burglary of the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate complex. Thanks to investigative reporting, special prosecutors, and Senate hearings, he and 29 other Nixon officials pleaded or were found guilty of crimes; and Mr. Nixon took an early retirement. We were saved from Nixon’s attempt to create an imperial presidency.
But, where did this “presidential signing statement” angle come from? It definitely did not come from our Founding Fathers. It came from Edwin Meese, the presidential counselor and the second* attorney general to serve the clueless Ronald Reagan. It was a scheme to expand the president’s powers at the expense of Congress and the courts. The worst news is that Meese was advised by a young lawyer named Samuel Alito. It is no mystery why the Republican reactionaries, who replaced the fiscal conservatives and moderates and now control the Republican Party, were so eager to get Mr. Alito appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Alito, on May 30, voted with the 5 to 4 majority to deny protection for whistleblowers that expose government malfeasance!
There were laws that prevented the Reagan Administration from selling weapons to Iran, from negotiating with terrorists for hostages, and from providing aid to the Contras (who were rebelling against the government of Nicaragua). The handlers of the figurehead Ronald Reagan did not like these laws, so they thought they could violate them with the President’s “approval.” When exposed by the news media, the result was the uncovering of the Iran-Contra Scandal.
Attorney General Meese was one of the 138 Reagan Administration officials investigated for official misconduct in office, but he was not one of the record 31 convictions. Mr. Reagan himself was let off the hook. The special prosecutor was convinced that Mr. Reagan probably didn’t truly understand what his people were up to and Reagan’s memory was such that he couldn’t remember the details anyway. Nevertheless, this second attempt to establish an autocratic presidency failed.
Since it was the Supreme Court that initially put him in office, Mr. Bush seems to truly believe that God meant him to be President. He certainly believes Nixon’s claim that if an order is issued by the President, it means it’s not illegal. But, President Bush has taken that dangerous concept even farther. He has stated that one of the things he likes about being President is that it means he doesn’t have to explain to anyone why he does something. The recent disclosures of his warrantless domestic eavesdropping on U.S. citizens should not have been surprising. He seems to believe in the “Divine Right of Kings.”
It is always distressing to realize how few voters are aware that those running our country today are “survivors” from the Nixon and Reagan Administrations. Karl Rove, Dick “The Vice” Cheney, and Donald “Iraq War” Rumsfeld got their starts during the reign of a master of the Big Lie, “Tricky Dick” Nixon! They are believers in an all-powerful chief executive unfettered by popular opinion, legislatures, or courts. Previously frustrated by Watergate and Iran-Contra, they think they can actually pull it off with King George W.
Hopefully, on this 4th of July celebration, we will remember that upon emerging from Independence Hall at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a lady (Mrs. Powell) asked, “Dr. Franklin, what have you given us – a republic or a monarchy?” He answered, “A republic, madam, IF you can keep it.”
*Author’s note: On July 5, 2006, I inexcusably attributed Mr. Meese as being Reagan’s first attorney general and deprived William French Smith of having that dubious distinction. I humbly apologize. Also, other Presidents from FDR on have used “signing statements.” However, Reagan and Bush II have used them uniquely to say they were not going to adhere to the bills they signed.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published July 5, 2006,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.
(Corrected July 16, 2006)