Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Bush's hard but brittle line

President Bush has offered to make his senior aides available to Congressional investigators in the prosecutor case -- but not under oath, and with no transcripts.

Bush said his White House counsel, Fred Fielding, told lawmakers they could interview presidential counselor Karl Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and their deputies — but only on the president's terms: in private, "without the need for an oath" and without a transcript.

The president cast the offer as virtually unprecedented and a reasonable way for Congress to get all the information it needs about the matter.

"If the Democrats truly do want to move forward and find the right information, they ought to accept what I proposed," Bush said. "If scoring political points is the desire, then the rejection of this reasonable proposal will really be evident for the American people to see."

"Reasonable"? Maybe. On the one hand, the demand that there be no oath sounds like more than it is: the aides would still be legally required to tell the truth. But the request for no transcripts is an odd one. Are investigators supposed to put a report together from memory? Why is Bush so adamant that there be no record of the conversations? Is this just more knee-jerk secrecy from the administration that redefined obsessive secrecy?

Reject the offer, Bush warned, and it would provoke a Constitutional showdown. He's right about that: it's unclear just what power Congress has -- or should have -- to subpoena senior members of the executive branch.

The Senate offers a good (if potentially self-serving) primer on Congressional subpoena power here (pdf). It notes that the power to subpoena is not written into the Constitution, but falls under Congress' oversight power. It points to the writings of myriad Founding Fathers attesting to that fact. George Mason noted that legislatures "possess inquisitorial powers." Another founder, James Wilson, said the House of Representatives forms "the grand inquest of the state."

Still, the power, being implied, is somewhat ill-defined. Congress could easily pass laws compelling private citizens to appear. But what of executive branch members? Alexander Hamilton and George Washington both had run-ins with Congressional investigators, though both ultimately complied with Congressional demands.

In 1927, the Supreme Court finally ruled in an executive branch case, McGrain v. Daugherty. It said Congress could investigate the executive branch in order to properly oversee it -- a reaffirmation of legislative supremacy in the Constitutional balance of powers. In 1957, in Watkins v. United States, the Court ruled that such power is broad, but it must pertain to a legitimate task of Congress.

The one exception: the implied power of "executive privilege", in which the president is allowed to keep certain internal deliberations private to encourage candid and forceful discussion among his advisers. But that power is less well-established and more limited than the subpoena power. In the most notable case, United States v. Nixon, President Nixon was compelled to turn over the Watergate tapes. When the President asserts only a generalized need for confidentiality, the privilege does not overcome the interests of governmental oversight or (in the case of Watergate) that of criminal defendants.

So what Bush is threatening is a Constitutional showdown between two implied powers: the power to subpoena executive officials, and the power of executive privilege. Both sides have long avoided such a showdown, for fear of an adverse decision. And the judicial branch has encouraged such vagueness, not wanting to get involved in such an interbranch dispute. It's not pure political cowardice at work, either. With neither side on clear constitutional footing, they tend to compromise and reach solutions that solve the problem at hand without backing either branch into a corner, or forcing the Supreme Court to start deciding which privilege dominates when.

But if it comes to it, I think Bush will lose. He is asserting a generalized privilege, while Congress is attempting to investigate a specific potential case. Much will turn on whether the investigation is well-founded or simply a fishing expedition; look for the White House to argue that there is no evidence of wrongdoing, and thus no justification for an investigation. But assuming it is deemed legitimate, then the Watergate precedent suggests the needs of government will win out over the claim of privilege.

Congress thinks so, too; they've already rejected Bush's offer and are preparing to issue subpoenas on Wednesday. I hate to predict what Bush will do, but look for him to fold on this one. His current White House counsel, Fred Fielding, is a legal realist. Whereas Alberto Gonzales would obediently fight a privilege claim to the bitter, losing end, Fielding is more able to predict who has the winning hand. He will probably advise Bush accordingly.

And then consider the irony: The two strongest proponents of executive power in recent history -- Richard Nixon and Bush -- have ended up doing the most to weaken it through their overreach.

Update: Captain Ed surveys the same terrain and reaches the opposite conclusion, based on the argument that the investigation is groundless.

Also, here's a Clinton-era case in which administration officials were ordered to comply with a subpoena. The full text of the decision is here. Note that in both this and the Nixon case there was a pending criminal investigation, which strengthened Congress' hand. In the prosecutor case there is, as yet, no special counsel or other such legal investigation, which tends to strengthen Bush's hand.

And there was some delicious commentary on it from a familiar name: Tony Snow. He wrote the following in an op-ed piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1998.

Evidently, Mr. Clinton wants to shield virtually any communications that take place within the White House compound on the theory that all such talk contributes in some way, shape or form to the continuing success and harmony of an administration. Taken to its logical extreme, that position would make it impossible for citizens to hold a chief executive accountable for anything. He would have a constitutional right to cover up.

Chances are that the courts will hurl such a claim out, but it will take time.

One gets the impression that Team Clinton values its survival more than most people want justice and thus will delay without qualm. But as the clock ticks, the public's faith in Mr. Clinton will ebb away for a simple reason: Most of us want no part of a president who is cynical enough to use the majesty of his office to evade the one thing he is sworn to uphold -- the rule of law.


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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You ask, why is Bush so adamant about it? Because he's aware that it's a political maneuver by the Democrats who seek to "get Rove" out of office. All they seek to do is get some little inconsistency "on paper" and "under oath" in order to do that. Plus, they want to ask him about his advice to the President and President's have the Constitutional right to get advice without fear of being hauled before a Congressional hearing each and every time.

I heard Leahy say on NPR this morning when asked what he wanted to find out here and he answered...."I want to know if these firings were at all political." Uh....hello??? Leahy, what YOU are doing is political. Wake up, you are in Washington D.C. where virtually 99% of things done are political in some way.

And one more very important FACT: the appointment of U.S. attorneys IS political. They are POLITICAL appointtes, for heavens sakes. Always have been.

JP5

3/21/2007 9:59 AM  
Anonymous Damozel said...

An excellent analysis. But the Dems should probably take him up on his "offer." That would be the wily, politic thing to do, particularly if they keep pointing out that the WH refused to have its officials talk under oath and on the record.

3/21/2007 5:40 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Damozel: Whether the Dems should accept it depends on whether they think there's actually anything to find. If not, they would be wise to do as you say. But if they think there's something there, they'll keep pushing.

3/21/2007 6:15 PM  

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