Thursday, August 23, 2007

The blogs are alive with the squeals of outrage, as the Democratic leadership knuckles under to Dubya yet again --- this time by passing a bill which gives the "unitary executive" the right to snoop on internet communications without a warrant or any other meaningful oversight at all. You can doubt the Democrats' commitment to, well, small-d democracy, as Arthur Silber did in the jeremiad he wrote in response. But Arthur's been outraged for a while, and as for the rest, well... once again, it's odd to start getting outraged now.

The thing is that in the long run, it's not actually clear that anything else the Democrats did would have made a difference. The kerfuffle about needing changes in the bill apparently started when a new FISA court judge withdrew approval from one of Dubya's ongoing snooping programs --- but that only makes a difference if the people running the equipment obey the rulings of the court. The administration itself considers laws merely advisory --- an attitude that Dubya himself has long made clear with "signing statements" that simply declare he wasn't going to follow the oversight provisions, or whatever else, in some new law that he found inconvenient. And if his functionaries see things differently, well, with time, those functionaries could be rotated out, as he's been doing all along with, say, less-than-pliant prosecutors, or generals in the Pentagon who wouldn't go along with the latest foolishness (from Shinseki before the Iraq invasion, to Abizaid, who was "rotated out early" last winter after being publically critical of the plans for the "surge").

And what, then, would Congress do about it? We begin with an administration that openly flaunts its willingness to break the law. They use unprecedented, sweeping claims of executive privilege to skirt oversight --- ignoring subpoenas, to the point of claiming that presidential aides (or former aides!), when summoned for testimony, needn't even show up. Shall we hold them in contempt? Well, then, we already know Dubya's next move: his Justice Department has already said that if they get a contempt citation for these guys, it won't be prosecuted.

This is what bugs me about folks who view impeachment as, perhaps justified, but impractical. What else do they want Congress to do? You can say that Congress hasn't really exhausted all of its alternatives --- they could hold more hearings, issue more subpoenas, maybe even (if they want to get a little daring) hold a press conference. But at this point, the pattern is plain. Congress attempts to exercise their checks and balances on a rogue executive, Dubya defies them, there are no consequences, and the next time, the defiance gets more brazen, to the point that the attorney general is telling them laughable lies. What's left? The "inherent contempt" procedure, by which the Senate sends its guards to physically detain these folks? Without the cooperation of any executive agency if they choose not to go willingly? Please. If these are the only tools Congress has, then the only choice any of us have is to just sit tight while Dubya's crew runs and ruins the country however they see fit until January 2009 --- assuming, that is, that Dubya chooses to obey the law that says at that point, he's obliged to leave.

Impeachment is not the best tool that Congress has to bring a rogue executive to heel. It's a crude, cumbersome, blunt instrument. No one with any sense is advocating it as the most efficient procedure, the most effective, the least cumbersome, or anything like that. It is simply the last one left.


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