Protecting the President's Power

Monday, June 25, 2007

James A. Baker III came to see Dick Cheney on Nov. 19, 1980, shortly before assuming the post of White House chief of staff under Ronald Reagan. His predecessor's advice, recorded in four pages of handwritten notes on Baker's yellow legal pad, began with this:

1. Restore power & auth to Exec Branch - Need strong ldr'ship. Get rid of War Powers Act - restore independent rights.****** Central theme we ought to push

Cheney's muscular views on presidential power, then and now, offer one answer to a question raised often by former colleagues: What happened to the careful, mainstream conservative they thought they understood?

In fact, Cheney's views on executive supremacy have held remarkably steady over the years. What changed is his power to promote them.

In the Ford administration, Cheney backed largely losing arguments on executive authority, resisting the limits set by Congress after the Watergate scandal and the Church Committee's revelations of CIA abuse. He lamented a congressional override of President Gerald R. Ford's veto of amendments strengthening the Freedom of Information Act, opposed limits on eavesdropping set by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and described the War Powers Act as unconstitutional.

Simply by creating a defense establishment, Cheney said, Congress had "already given prior approval" for any presidential decision on where and how to make war.

After the Reagan administration circumvented congressional bans on trading with Iran and funding Nicaraguan rebels known as contras, an independent counsel indicted three top officials. A special congressional committee concluded that the Reagan White House had subverted the Constitution.

Cheney was among the principal authors of a blistering dissent. The scandal, according to the Iran-contra committee's minority report, was not that the White House had broken the law, but that Congress had tried to command the commander in chief.

Reagan's secret decisions were not always wise, according to the minority report, but they "were constitutionally protected exercises of inherent Presidential powers."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company