The Checks and Balances Hostage Crisis
– by David Matthews 2
There is an old legal saying about the man who serves as his own attorney has a fool for a client.
But how about the man who serves as his own judge, jury, and enforcer? Who’s really the fool then?
Those are the questions that America’s founding fathers wondered about when they pondered over whether or not to part from the British Empire. They debated heavily over whether or not the abuses of power being committed on them and on their brethren and what they could do to change it. Eventually they realized that they had no recourse BUT to challenge the system, declare independence from an abusive regime, and fight for what they believe in.
That is why, after America won its independence and it came time to forge those “new bonds” between the masses and government, it did so based on some very revolutionary ideas.
The first is that government should operate only upon the consent of the governed. That flew in the face of the “divine right of kings” philosophy that most of the civilized world at the time relied upon.
The second idea was that no man was above the law; that the Rule of Law applied to everyone, regardless of who or what they are in society. That is the basis for the statement that “all men are created equal”. It was not something that they were ready to put into general practice, in regards to the law, it was something they adhered to in principle.
Now those two ideas were not original. They were, in fact, present to some extent in the Magna Carta, which limited the power of the British monarchy to some extent. But the British nobles that rammed the document down King John’s throat in 1215 never took those two ideas to the next logical step. They didn’t establish that “all men are created equal”, nor did they set up any kind of safeguards to prevent abuses of power from happening. They didn’t want to change the British Empire; they just wanted to limit the abuses of the monarchy. They wanted to maintain the status quo, as unequal as it was at the time.
America’s founding fathers, however, had enough of the abuses of Great Britain. They weren’t risking their lives and the lives of their families simply for the status quo. They NEEDED change. So when America’s founding fathers started actually setting up the government, they made sure that the abuses of power that they observed with King George III and Parliament would not happen here. They had a basic framework from James Madison’s anonymously-published Federalist Papers, so all they needed to do was to codify and ratify it.
That is the reason why America has three branches of government, and a bicameral legislature with divided responsibilities. That’s the reason why US Senators were originally appointed by the state governors (before that changed through the Seventeenth Amendment) and why the members of the US House of Representatives were elected by the people and that their numbers were based on population. It’s also why WE as voters don’t elect the President of the United States, but rather we elect representatives to the Electoral College, who then elect the President. It’s also why the first ten Amendments to the US Constitution are called the Bill of Rights and are designed to LIMIT the scope of government.
ALL of it… every single one of the complicated and confusing processes that we call our system of government… was set up to PREVENT a repeat of the abuses of King George III and Parliament. It is all designed to serve as a system of checks and balances, to keep one party or one politician from having absolute control over the government.
Unfortunately it only works when there are people willing to USE it.
So what happens when you have an over-aggressive political faction that eagerly uses fear and intimidation to get what they want? In theory, the system of checks and balances should keep such aggressive factions from abusing their power.
It should… but it doesn’t.
Take, for instance, the authority of the President of the United States versus the authority of the Congress. Under the Constitution, the Congress is charged with writing legislation and sending it to the president. The President then can either sign these bills into law or he can veto them, but that’s pretty much all that the chief executive can do.
So the Congress drafts some legislation that expressly prohibits the use of torture in interrogation. The bill then goes to the President’s desk. He knows that if he signs it, the law would take away his ability to use torture those captured in his number one pet project, which is the “War on Evil Islamic Bad Guys Who Don’t Like Us”. Unfortunately, if he vetoes the bill, there’s a chance that the Congress will override his veto and he’ll still lose his so-called “needed tools”. Plus it would be something of a public relations problem, since the veto would put him in league with the worst of the despots and tyrants in the world.
So what does President George W. Bush do? He signs the bill into law, and then he adds his own little codicil in the form of a “signing statement”, which says that the law doesn’t apply to his office because we’re in a “state of war”.
In other words, he RE-WRITES THE LAW to suit his own agenda!
Now I happen to have a copy of the US Constitution at my desk, and I HAVE gone over it a few times and no place in that document does it say that the Executive Branch of the United States government can add or change any bill he signs into law! Nor is there any mention of a “signing statement”. Sure it’s a tradition, and so is the addition of “so help me God” as part of the Oath of Office, and the Thanksgiving pardon of a turkey, but that doesn’t mean that any of it is a part of the Constitution.
And so this president has done just that… on more than one occasion. By all accounts, the checks and balances should have kicked in. The judicial system SHOULD have stepped in and stopped this from happening. And if that branch is getting ignored, then it is the responsibility of the legislature, as part of those same checks and balances, to weigh in possible impeachment proceedings.
So why hasn’t it happened?
Well because two other things happened. First, this same president has been busy appointing judges. Some of them were so-called “recess appointments”, which means that when Congress was out, the White House was able to bypass the whole confirmation process and simply appoint the judges they want. It’s a short-term measure, limited to that Congressional session, but it puts the judges in place, and it gave the White House political leverage to keep them in place. The White House also was able to seat TWO Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice, following the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and the sudden death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
That covers the judicial branch of government.
Then you have the legislature itself… Congress. For six years, the Republicans dominated the Congress. Even when the Senate was being controlled by the Democrats, it was only though the slimmest of margins, and even then there were enough conservative Democrats that made sure that the Senate would do whatever it is that the White House wants. The end result is having a Congress that effectively became nothing more than a rubber stamp for George W. Bush. Whatever he wanted, they gave him. Even when the Democrats took over both houses of Congress in 2007, their tenure so far has been one of compromise, surrender, and retreat.
Even before she took over, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised that she would NOT hold impeachment hearing against anyone in the White House. “Impeachment is off the table,” she said in a “60 Minutes” interview. Never mind that her liberal base, the very ones that helped put her party BACK in power, were SCREAMING for impeachment hearings.
But long before this even became an issue, there has been a general arrogance amongst the Executive and Legislative branches over their positions. Members of Congress would bully their pet bills into passage on the assurance that what they want complies with the Constitution, even though it would later turn out to be a blatant lie. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft bullied Congress into complying with giving the White House sweeping power without any kind of oversight, promising that HE, as a former member of Congress himself, would give that oversight himself and personally tell the Congress that it hasn’t been abused at all. A year later he would go back and declare that, as he promised, there were NO abuses of that power. But after he left, though, the REAL story comes out, and there WERE abuses of that power.
In other words, the legislative branch of government has either been compliant, been bullied into compliance, or else they outright REFUSE to do their jobs.
And thus the OTHER part of the whole concept of “Checks and Balances” is effectively neutered, leaving the White House free and clear to do whatever it is they want to do, unchallenged.
Now the supporters of the Bush White House (and their numbers are dwindling) say that such suspensions of checks and balances are necessary because we are “in a state of war”. They cite the times that Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War and when Franklin Roosevelt ordered the detention of thousands of Japanese-Americans in World War II.
But what these supporters fail to comprehend is that the abuses of power by Lincoln and Roosevelt, done in a time of war, were never intended to be long-term. NEITHER of them ever believed that their wars would go on indefinitely. That is not the case with our current White House residents! Bush has said on more than one occasion that this “War on Evil Islamic Bad Guys who Don’t Like Us” would be a LONG-TERM conflict, one that would essentially go on until the end of time!
In other words, these supporters of the White House are really advocating for the removal of the Constitutional system of Checks and Balances FOREVER!
Let’s get brutally honest here… our very system of government is being held HOSTAGE by a very polarized political faction that has no qualms whatsoever doing everything that America’s founding fathers would fear in the name of fighting this “War on Evil Islamic Bad Guys who Don’t Like Us”. They have used fear and intimidation to dismantle the very system that was designed to protect our government from becoming despotic, and they have done so in OUR name and on the pretense of being in OUR best interests.
And again, I’m not saying that this is really anything new. The tendency HAS been there for quite some time now. Those in government LOATHE to be held to the same standards that they hold their constituents to. They don’t like to be judged. They don’t WANT to be judged!
For the longest time, governments large and small have insulated themselves from the true scorn of their constituents. They create ethics committees that they themselves staff with lackeys. They write ethics rules for themselves that carry almost no measure of punishment for even the most grievous of transgressions against the constituents, and they only face expulsion when they dare to cross their peers. Those in government are protected from the law by the outdated notion of “sovereign immunity”, which means that they can commit premeditated murder on primetime TV and get away with it by simply claiming that they’re doing it on behalf of the government.
Think of the utter hypocrisy about this! They can write laws that turn us ALL into criminals for the simplest of infractions, but they themselves are insulated from any kind of accountability even for the worst of transgressions.
And this sets a bad example for others in government. Police departments have developed a siege mentality, one that allows even the worst of police officers to be protected by the best. Innocent people are hurt or killed by the corruption and incompetence of certain officers, but they still get protection from even the best on the force. Loyalty is valued more than ethics. Those in charge of policing the policemen are spat upon and insulted. The much-overhyped motto of “to protect and serve” is, at times, only a self-serving one.
You look at the failings of government-controlled education and you see good teachers stymied and bad ones protected. We’d like to blame the teachers unions for this, but, in truth, they’re only emulating the examples set down by those in government. They too have adopted a siege mentality that pits them against the rest of the world.
It doesn’t take much, then, to convince those in government that a system designed to protect us from despotism should be bypassed, sabotaged, and disabled in the name of expediency. They already allow themselves to do whatever they like, so what is one more transgression to them? It certainly means fewer hassles to deal with on their end.
Our Constitutional safeguard of checks and balances do not kick in on their own. They only have any value to them when we GIVE them value, and when those we put into office GIVE them value.
The blatant and abrasive political abuses of Joe McCarthy of the 1950’s went on unchallenged for years. He was allowed to insult, defame, and slander the reputations of people for the sake of his own ego. People shrugged their shoulders and simply said “it’ll stop”, but it never did. It finally took people who were willing to stand up and say “THIS IS WRONG” before the system finally kicked in to shut McCarthy down. The system only works when people STEP UP and say “ENOUGH”.
House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid WILL NEVER keep any President honest if they do not first take back control of the Checks and Balances that their predecessors eagerly surrendered to the White House. And if WE as voters continue to put these kinds of career politicians in office, then we DESERVE to live in nothing less than despotism.