July 25, 2006

What Constitutes a Constitutional Crisis?

This month, Congressman Barney Frank gave a speech that David Broder found compelling. One thing that Broder especially liked was the fact that Frank distanced himself from the strident left:

Frank began by separating himself from the strident voices on the left -- frequent in the world of blogging -- that accuse Bush of subverting American democracy. "Some of the words that get thrown around, authoritarianism and worse, should not be used lightly," Frank said. "This remains, in the sixth year of the Bush presidency, a very free country."

Reading this and respecting Barney Frank as much as I do, I thought that it would be important to understand his argument, because I am clearly of the belief that the Bush presidency is a clear and present danger to our Constitution. Here's what Frank said about the Bush presidency:

Mr. Speaker, I meet, as we all do, with people in my district and people elsewhere in the country, and I have for a couple of years now been engaged in some debate with some of my liberal friends on the nature of our disagreements with this administration. And up until a few months ago, my argument was that we should focus on those policy issues where we disagreed, and there were many: the war in Iraq; an economic policy that undercuts working people, that promotes inequality; policies that weaken the environment; policies that undercut the rights of minorities.

Others have said, no, we have to go beyond that. We have to indict this administration for his whole philosophy of governing and people have questioned its commitment to democracy. I continue to disagree that we should question this administration's commitment to democracy.

What Frank says is that Bush respects democracy because he knows he has gotten his legitimacy from being elected. Yet, Frank finds that Bush doesn't really believe that the checks and balances that create our form of democracy are legitimate. And in fact, what Frank finds is that Bush and his administration have been trying to change the meaning of our constitution to make it more of a plebiscite presidency, where the strong man, once gaining power, gets to make all the decisions without any oversight. And this, Frank notes is not a good thing for our Democracy.

So whether it is signing statements or misuse of the authorization of use of force in Afghanistan, or refusal to talk to Members of Congress on things, or exploiting the fact that it is very hard to get judicial decisions, all of these things come together in a pattern. That is why I say, I acknowledge now that when I told friends over these past couple of years that we should just go policy issue by policy issue and not talk about the overall framework of governance, I was wrong.

It is now clear to me there is a pattern to this administration's actions, and it is one that rejects not democracy, but the democracy of checks and balances and participation and cooperation and collaboration that we have long known; and it substitutes the democracy of the plebiscite, the democracy of the strong man who gets elected and is then allowed to go forward without interference. And I think that is wrong both from a philosophical standpoint and also from a practical standpoint.

...What we have is an administration that is radically trying to change the nature of our democracy. They want to simplify it, they want to neaten it. Democracy is not good when it is neat, certainly not in a country as vast as this one. No single individual, no matter how popular, can embody all of the wisdom and all of the values of the country.

The democracy we have evolved of full participation isn't always convenient for those of us in power, it isn't always as quick as people would like, but it has proven over time to be effective, and it could be not only effective today, but even more effective in our collective self-defense than the current model, which produces controversy where none is called for and division where we could have unity.

I am not optimistic that we will change the approach of this administration. But I do hope, Mr. Speaker, that our colleagues in this Congress will continue what I think are stirrings of change and reassert our historic role and restore the kind of messy and inconvenient and much better and more inclusive democracy that has been our country's legacy.

It is now clear to me there is a pattern to this administration's actions, and it is one that rejects not democracy, but the democracy of checks and balances and participation and cooperation and collaboration that we have long known; and it substitutes the democracy of the plebiscite, the democracy of the strong man who gets elected and is then allowed to go forward without interference. And I think that is wrong both from a philosophical standpoint and also from a practical standpoint.

On my read, it seems that Frank is making a strong condemnation of how the Bush administration is trying to undermine our form of Constitutional democracy with its checks and balances and with its inclusion of a number of voices that bring different perspectives. And he is quite pointed at saying that a part of the problem is Bush has a rubberstamp Congress that defers to the President's every wish even when it is blatantly against the Constitution.

So, what does David Broder get from this speech? Well, it seems that beyond the fact that he is impressed that Frank dissed the lefties (particularly those strident blogs), that a big problem is that the Congress has neglected to do their oversight duty and he provides some positive reinforcement to the members of Congress if they finally decide to do their duty.

A Congress that challenges a president when it thinks he is wrong is not infringing on the rights of the "decider." It is reminding him that the Constitution and American history decree a division of power, with a set of checks and balances that make this a different form of democracy from that of parliamentary systems -- or disguised dictatorships such as those run by Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez and Hosni Mubarak. That is why Frank's speech is important.

What Broder doesn't seem to even question is what happens if the Congress decides to operate as an oversight agency or the courts overrule the administration and the administration just refuses to play the checks and balances game. So far the administration has been able to avoid a showdown and showing the iron fist in the glove because they've been able to keep Constitutional cases out of the Courts, they've subverted the Congress by putting in place people who corrupt the oversight process and they've intimidated the press to keep their actions secret.

Yet, who doesn't believe that if the Bush administration is told you can't do something, they will find a way to get around that restriction? The naivety of people like Broder is a major reason that we are in this Constitutional crisis. After reading Frank's speech, I think he actually gets it, although I'm not sure if he has conveyed this message with sufficient urgency.

Posted by Mary at July 25, 2006 12:59 AM | US Politics | Technorati links |
Comments

I love your blog and read it daily.

However, I'm a little troubled about your comments on how Frank is supposedly not siding with the "strident left". In fact, I'm a little offended.

WTF is "strident left" supposed to mean? What Frank is proposing is exactly what the "strident left" is proposing - a return to normalcy - to reinstate our lost constitutional freedoms.

I'm also a little surprised that anyone happens to think that our country is still "very free". If we were still "very free", why are so many people still intimidated about using their barely-there-still-sacred-rights - like getting out into the streets and protesting peacefully?

I'll tell you why: because the government has a strongly enforced policy of punishing anyone who voices an opinion against it. Examples: spying on millions of Americans, especially left-leaning, pro-peace organizations.

You need to pay more attention - look at what's happening around us. Read the Patriot Act - and stop assuming that we are still "very free".

Believe me - we are NOT free anymore. I hardly recognize our country today. I grew up in the 60's and 70's, and I thought it was bad back then. What I wouldn't give to have those days back again. People were still "very free" back then.

Posted by: Ginger Winchester at July 25, 2006 10:00 AM

Ginger, I strongly agree with you about the change in our country. And as one of the strident left, I certainly believe we are much more credible about the current state of our government than Broder (who probably didn't really understand Frank's speech - but was attracted to it because he heard Frank being moderate and rejecting the warnings of the left). I think there are a lot of us on the liberal side that saw the problems with this government much earlier than most people in the centers of power - and I think that we were given the same respect as Cassandra.

I'm still very worried that too many in the corridors of power don't understand the real threat to our country and our government and so they poo-poo our concerns and wonder why we are so "shrill". I think Frank is starting to realize the problem. I don't know if Broder is capable of understanding. Eventually, Frank will be as shrill as the rest of us and will be seen trying his damnest to wake up his colleagues before it is too late.

And boy, I'd like to undo the past few years as well - they've been a nightmare for our country.

Posted by: Mary at July 25, 2006 09:57 PM

Related: An American Bar Association task force (those wacky hippies) resolved that Bush's extensive use of signing statements is not Constitutionally appropriate.
http://www.abanet.org/op/signingstatements/aba_final_signing_statements_recommendation-report_7-24-06.pdf

Posted by: tjewell at July 26, 2006 09:59 AM