I am not the type given to needless paranoia. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine how any impartial observer of Vice President Dick Cheney could read this week’s special Washington Post series on our vice president and not become very alarmed. Cheney needs to be neutered, and quickly. Dick Cheney is busy shredding our constitution. If the rule of law and our republican government are worth preserving, he must be held accountable.
Sadly, unless we raise a hullabaloo, that seems unlikely. There is some slim hope that Cheney will find it in his party’s interest to resign. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Sally Quinn asserts that Congressional Republicans are working on a putsch. Congressional Republicans seem less concerned about his un-American activities than they are about being blown away in the 2008 elections. Ms. Quinn believes that it will become convenient this summer for Cheney to resign for health reasons. She speculates that Bush would nominate Fred Thompson, the former Senator, likely presidential candidate and former Law and Order actor to replace him.
I strongly suspect such talk amounts to wishful thinking. As the Washington Post series documents, Cheney is so adept at wielding power and so used to having his way that he is unlikely to go voluntarily. Cancer works the same way. It enters the body surreptitiously, does its evil work, and refuses to leave. Cheney has become a cancer to our constitutional government. He is putting our republic in grave danger. Yes, Cheney needs to go along with any political appointee reporting to the Vice President. For even if Cheney did step down, that does not necessarily mean that the cancer would be in remission. A loyal coterie of trusted advisors would still work to carry out his agenda. Therefore, his whole staff has to go along with, if possible, any die hard neoconservative lurking in the Executive Branch.
Cheney has learned that the ceremonial trappings of the presidency slow down its fun part: the execution of power. He prefers the role of puppet master. He likes to exercise power through stealth, cleverness and proxy. After all, if you are actually in charge, you are accountable. If you are not then it becomes possible to bend, break, or in his case, generally ignore the laws, regulations and conventions. So perhaps in retrospect it should come as no surprise that he unilaterally declared that his office was exempt from an executive order which directed the collection of classified information. Although the White House was caught off guard, he knew that President Bush would retroactively back him up. What his act thoroughly demonstrates is that he cannot be controlled and does not feel at all bound by tradition or jurisprudence. He constructed a bizarre new and laughable constitutional theory that because of his nominal duties as president of the Senate he was not fully in the Executive Branch, so his office was exempt from a presidential directive to protect classified information.
This ridiculous explanation says a lot about Dick Cheney’s mind. In this case, it is a middle finger raised high at Congress. He simply does not give a damn about what the Congress thinks and this is his way of showing it. Like Leona Helmsley, he believes laws are for little people, and clearly not for Vice Presidents. Nonetheless, he does not believe in overtly breaking the law. Instead, he grossly misinterprets or reinterprets the law so that it bends to meet his aims.
The “tortured” reasoning of the Administration’s stance on torture (another Cheney innovation) is a case The Post well documented. If you need to torture but the law gets in the way then you arm-twist the White House counsel (Alberto Gonzales in this case, now our disgraced Attorney General) to give you legal opinions that say otherwise. If Jesus can turn water into wine, then surely empowered vice presidents can turn torture into legal enhanced interrogation techniques. Cheney wins through stealth, sheer audacity, intimidation and when necessary, bullying. Who in the Executive Branch would dare to take their concerns about his behavior directly to the president? Cheney is Bush’s closest confidant and best friend. As the Post series documents, Cheney has been denied virtually nothing. He specializes in the fiat accompli: proactively working behind the scenes making moot the work of cabinet secretaries and the White House staff. Today, The Post revealed that former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman resigned because Cheney kept undercutting her authority. Likely, others like Secretary of State Colin Powell are also members of this expansive club.
No wonder Cheney has no desire to be president in 2009. Effectively he has been the president since 2001! Bush, the proud model of a CEO President, has delegated policy decisions to Dick Cheney. Bush is a figurehead president, one of Cheney’s many tendrils that do his bidding. Unlike a real president, who occasionally has to do disagreeable things like hold news conferences and meet with boring foreign dignitaries, Cheney gets to concentrate on wielding power 24/7. He is Big Brother. Think I am kidding? Which one of these slogans from Big Brother does he not parrot? “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.”
How did he do it? He did it by getting Bush to buy into the Unitary Executive Theory. As Bush practices it, it asserts that the Executive Branch can execute the law any way it pleases because it is independent of the Legislative Branch, even if (as numerous signing statements bear out) it completely contradicts the intent of the law. If in exercising the Executive’s prerogative a constitutional mistake was made, well, it can be left to the Supreme Court. Of course, it will likely take years for it to get on their docket, if it makes it at all. In the interim, power is exercised according to the Executive Branch’s aims. Naturally, it is harder for the Supreme Court to check the Executive Branch today, since President Bush has appointed two new members to the Supreme Court, who seem sympathetic to the theory. Cheney made sure only proponents of executive power would be nominated.
The Unitary Executive Theory means nothing if it is not practiced. Not to worry, Cheney is again leading the charge. The GAO found that of 19 provisions in signing statements that it tracked during 2006, nearly a third were not carried out according to the law. In short, Bush and Cheney have deliberately chosen not to enforce the law of the land, laws which Bush signed. Consequently, what Bush and Cheney are doing is far graver and more serious than anything Richard Nixon or his proxies did. They knew they were doing wrong, but tried to hide it. The Bush Administration feels no need to hide any of it.
Law is meaningless if not enforced. We trust the Executive Branch to impartially carry out the law, whether it agrees with it or not. (The remedy for disagreement is the veto.) Rather than have coequal branches, the application of this theory grossly, disproportionately and unconstitutionally shifts power toward the Executive Branch. Rather than it being a check on the power of Congress, the application of the Unitary Executive Theory shows an Executive Branch that is unaccountable and out of control.
The easy way out is to wait until January 2009 and hope that in a free and fair election, we will elect a president that respects the rule of law. However, this does not deter egregious behavior like this by future presidents. Consequently, Congress needs to hold the White House accountable, and Cheney is the obvious target. For the law has been broken. The Bush Administration has deliberately circumvented the law of the land. Moreover, it did so not accidentally, but quite deliberately. Its fingerprints can be found in its many signing statements. If it requires a constitutional crisis to resolve the issue of legality of signing statements, Congress owes it to future generations to charge ahead.
We citizens must demand that our government add additional checks so that someone like Dick Cheney can never usurp the rule of law with impunity again. This may require a constitutional amendment that clarifies the legality of signing statements and the duties of the president to uniformly and impartially enforce the law. Cheney’s actions have exposed a gaping hole in our system of government. It has thus far not been a problem because we have had leaders who had sufficient respect for the constitution to put it above their own partisan purposes. We must ensure that our constitution becomes meaningful again through a constitutional amendment and subsequent legislation.