Keeping the Power
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, July 27, 2004; Page A17
With all deliberate speed and a bit of pell-mell scramble, the White House is trying to keep up with lawmakers as they race to implement the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission. While determined not to be outflanked by Democrats on terrorism with just 98 days before the election, there is one major recommendation Bush aides can't accept.
The "National Intelligence Director," the commission proposes, "should be located in the Executive Office of the President and report directly to the president, yet be confirmed by the Senate." The director of the National Counterterrorism Center also would be "placed in the Executive Office of the President, headed by a Senate-confirmed official."
Ain't gonna happen.
Since President Bush came to office, his administration has been working to build executive power and to keep Congress and the courts from meddling: blocking access to records of Vice President Cheney's energy task force, fighting numerous efforts to get documents and congressional testimony from White House officials, and expanding executive authority over terrorism detainees.
Here's what happened in 2002, when lawmakers tried -- and failed -- to get a Senate-confirmed counterterrorism director in the White House: The White House threatened a veto, saying the legislation "seeks to interject Congress into the daily operations of the Executive Office of the President by requiring the director and a senior advisor to the president, within the president's own executive office, to report directly to Congress and participate in agency budget processes in a statutorily mandated fashion that is unacceptable. The creation of this office represents undue interference with presidential prerogatives and management of his own staff and support structures."
In the Executive Office of the President, only the top officials of the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative are confirmed by the Senate. Even the national security adviser, though of Cabinet-level rank, does not answer to the Congress -- a point the White House made loudly in opposing the Sept. 11 commission's demands for Condoleezza Rice's testimony.
The White House was at first skeptical last week about the need for rapid action on the panel's recommendations. Rice said there was no cause for a "rush headlong" to enact them. Bush, while endorsing the general thrust of the commission's recommendations, has not yet taken a position on installing a national intelligence director in the White House.
Though he did not use the balance-of-power argument, press secretary Scott McClellan last week offered a different reason for opposing the position. "You want to make sure that the intelligence continues to be something that is independent, and you want to strengthen its independence," he said.
So far, the White House is following the script it used with great success in 2002 when Congress was considering a Homeland Security Department. Bush originally opposed the idea, preferring to have an office in the White House handle the matter without congressional confirmation.
But when the push for the legislation gathered strength, Bush endorsed the creation of a Cabinet department but threatened a veto if Congress did not drop provisions that would have reduced presidential authority.
Bush then clobbered Democrats in the midterm elections by charging that they were delaying the legislation's passage because they opposed his version. Bush said the Democrats were "more interested in special interests . . . than they are in protecting the American people" -- a charge credited with helping return Senate control to the Republicans.
This time, with a bipartisan group of commission members vowing to fight for their recommendations, it may be more difficult for Bush to use that technique. But after 3 1/2 years of unwavering dedication to executive power, the president is unlikely to yield now.
As the years go by in Bush's term, he and his spokesmen apparently have had more trouble getting their thoughts out without questioners stopping them.
"If you'll let me finish my statement," McClellan protested last week while laying out Bush's view of the Sept. 11 commission. It was the 14th time White House briefers or the president used the line this year, on pace to exceed last year's 26. From 2001 to 2002, the phrase was used only six times.
Though McClellan is the most frequently interrupted, Bush used the phrase nine times in one interview last month with Irish television, including this plaintive request: "Let me finish. Let me finish, please. Please. You ask the questions and I'll answer them, if you don't mind."
On the other hand, one of the perks of being president is you get to interrupt people whenever you wish. "Let me stop you there," Bush told a participant in an "Ask the President" campaign event in Iowa last week. It was the ninth time he had done that on stage this year.
"If that different future for the Middle East is to be realized, we and our allies must make a generational commitment to helping the people of the Middle East transform their region. This has been the president's clear and consistent message."
-- Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser, Aug. 7, 2003.
"I need four more years to complete the work. . . . We will finish the work of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq."
-- President Bush, July 14, 2004.
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