Barney Frank's Reminder

By David S. Broder
Thursday, July 20, 2006

Forgive me, please, for not writing about the war in the Middle East. It is the most important topic of the day, but I have nothing to add to the lamentations and exhortations that have filled newspaper columns since it started last week. And a speech was given in the House of Representatives on July 13 that deserves more attention than the international crisis allowed the media to give it.

The speaker was Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the exceptionally bright liberal who has long been a respected voice in Democratic debates. His subject was the Bush presidency.

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."

Bush, he said, clearly believes that his legitimacy comes from being elected, though his first victory was hardly an endorsement by a majority of those who went to the polls. The problem, as Frank sees it, is that Bush believes in a "plebiscitary presidency" in which the election makes the chief executive the "decider" of national policy, to use one of Bush's favorite terms. "That is not a word you find often in American history," Frank said -- nor, he might have added, in the Constitution. "The president is a very influential and very powerful person. But he is not the single decider. He is the most important in a system of multiple sources of power."

The most striking examples of Bush's expansive view of presidential power come in the national security area. Frank cited Bush's ignoring the congressional mandate that domestic surveillance programs be conducted only under the supervision of a specially appointed court -- a policy belatedly and only partially corrected by the agreement announced last week between the White House and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter.

Frank also pointed to the after-the-fact offer of a briefing from the Treasury Department on the secret monitoring of the financial transactions of people with ties to suspected terrorists. Treasury offered Frank and others the briefing "as a courtesy" only after it learned that the New York Times and others were about to report on the program. As Frank said: "That sums it up. The process of briefing members of Congress is supposed to be part of the constitutional mandate for collaboration. It does not come from Miss Manners; it comes from the Constitution."

In domestic affairs, Frank found evidence of executive overreaching in the widespread use of "signing statements," in effect a way for the president to ignore or dismiss sections of laws passed by Congress that he finds objectionable. Bush has also made frequent use of the recess appointment power to place people in diplomatic or judicial posts who could not be confirmed, even by a Senate controlled by his own party.

"This could not have happened without the collaboration of a supine Congress," Frank said. "Never in American history has Congress been so willing to give away its constitutional function." Many committees have all but abandoned their traditional oversight role, failing to conduct the investigations or raise the questions that hold the executive branch accountable.

But that is beginning to change. Frank said he saw "stirrings" of institutional pride among some of his Republican colleagues. And this week the Senate joined the House in passing the stem cell research bill despite the fact that Bush had said it would provoke his first veto.

It was a heartening thing to see Bill Frist, the senator from Tennessee, speaking and acting as the leader of a bipartisan Senate majority on stem cells, rather than in his too-familiar role as a spokesman or apologist for the president.

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.

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