Columns » Warwick Sabin

Dereliction of duty

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“Duty, Honor, Country,” is the title of a biography of Prescott Bush, the former U.S. senator from Connecticut and grandfather of the current president. Those three words represent the principles and priorities that guided his life, and according to the book, he was determined to pass them along to his children.

So it’s not surprising that George W. Bush invokes those words often, usually to ennoble whatever cause he is promoting, or to impart a solemn majesty to it.

Unfortunately he has probably never considered why duty and honor are exalted. That is, both imply a sense of sacrifice. You perform a duty even if it is difficult or against your wishes. You are honorable if you abide by your oath, no matter the consequences.

For Bush, however, selflessness and obedience are foreign concepts. He swore to “faithfully execute” his office, and yet he refuses to respect existing laws, and by extension, our system of government.

Within the past week, the American Bar Association issued a report condemning Bush’s use of “signing statements,” through which he announces that he will ignore certain provisions of bills that he signs. The ABA president called the practice a “threat to the Constitution and to the rule of law.”

Remember, the president is not allowed to make the laws. He or she is expected to execute them. Congress creates legislation after (hopefully) a long process of debate and compromise.

Those delicately constructed instruments are smashed to bits when the president decides to cherry-pick only the parts he likes. Our congressional representation is rendered meaningless, along with basic concepts like “separation of powers” and “checks and balances.”

Along the same lines, the New York Times last week revealed that since Bush couldn’t repeal the estate tax through Congress, he would just quit enforcing it.

Just weeks after the repeal effort failed, the Bush administration will eliminate 157 of the 345 estate tax lawyers at the Internal Revenue Service — those who audit the returns of the wealthiest Americans for signs of complicated tax evasion schemes.

One veteran estate tax lawyer called the move a “back-door way for the Bush administration to achieve what it cannot get from Congress, which is repeal of the estate tax.”

And during the same week, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter announced a “compromise” with the Bush administration on domestic wiretapping that gave the executive branch more power than it had in the first place.

“The bill extends from three days to seven the time, in emergency situations, that the government can conduct surveillance without the court’s permission,” Specter wrote in a July 24 Washington Post op-ed. “It permits the attorney general to delegate his authority to seek emergency warrants to subordinate officials. And it exempts from FISA’s jurisdiction communications between two persons overseas that gets routed through domestic servers. The bill would also transfer the various lawsuits challenging the program to the FISC for consideration under its secure procedures.”

In exchange, Specter says, Bush “personally commit[ted] to submitting this program for court review,” although he “understandably rejected a statutory mandate to submit his program to FISC.” In other words, we have to take Bush’s word that he will obey the law and allow judicial review of his actions.

This is simply offensive, especially when you consider that the challenge to Bush’s domestic eavesdropping authority is based on the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches.

It’s bad enough to violate a congressional measure or attach a signing statement to a piece of legislation. But it’s far worse for a president to presume to dictate how his conduct will be regulated according to the Constitution.

Of course, much of the fault for this lies with Specter and his colleagues, who also have no sense of duty and honor in protecting the dignity of Congress as a co-equal branch of government. They succumbed to the pressures of partisanship, putting their loyalty to Bush above that to their offices.

This is exactly what George Washington warned against in his farewell address, when he talked about the “danger of parties.” And in that same speech he went on to urge our elected leaders to “confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism.”

If there is a good reason to change the law or the Constitution, Washington said a process exists for doing that. “But let there be no change by usurpation,” he continued. “For though this in one instance may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”


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