Al Gore’s Constitution Hall Speech – 2006-01-20 09:25:35
There is a final reason to worry that we may be experiencing something more than just another cycle of overreach and regret. This Administration has come to power in the thrall of a legal theory that aims to convince us that this excessive concentration of presidential authority is exactly what our Constitution intended.
This legal theory, which its proponents call the theory of the unitary executive but which is more accurately described as the unilateral executive, threatens to expand the president’s powers until the contours of the constitution that the Framers actually gave us become obliterated beyond all recognition. Under this theory, the President’s authority when acting as Commander-in-Chief or when making foreign policy cannot be reviewed by the judiciary or checked by Congress. President Bush has pushed the implications of this idea to its maximum by continually stressing his role as Commander-in-Chief, invoking it has frequently as he can, conflating it with his other roles, domestic and foreign. When added to the idea that we have entered a perpetual state of war, the implications of this theory stretch quite literally as far into the future as we can imagine.
This effort to rework America’s carefully balanced constitutional design into a lopsided structure dominated by an all powerful Executive Branch with a subservient Congress and judiciary is-ironically-accompanied by an effort by the same administration to rework America’s foreign policy from one that is based primarily on U.S. moral authority into one that is based on a misguided and self-defeating effort to establish dominance in the world.
The common denominator seems to be based on an instinct to intimidate and control.
This same pattern has characterized the effort to silence dissenting views within the Executive Branch, to censor information that may be inconsistent with its stated ideological goals, and to demand conformity from all Executive Branch employees.
For example, CIA analysts who strongly disagreed with the White House assertion that Osama bin Laden was linked to Saddam Hussein found themselves under pressure at work and became fearful of losing promotions and salary increases.
Ironically, that is exactly what happened to FBI officials in the 1960s who disagreed with J. Edgar Hoover’s view that Dr. King was closely connected to Communists. The head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division said that his effort to tell the truth about King’s innocence of the charge resulted in he and his colleagues becoming isolated and pressured. “It was evident that we had to change our ways or we would all be out on the street…. The men and I discussed how to get out of trouble. To be in trouble with Mr. Hoover was a serious matter. These men were trying to buy homes, mortgages on homes, children in school. They lived in fear of getting transferred, losing money on their homes, as they usually did. … so they wanted another memorandum written to get us out of the trouble that we were in.”
The Constitution’s framers understood this dilemma as well, as Alexander Hamilton put it, “a power over a man’s support is a power over his will.” (Federalist No. 73)
Soon, there was no more difference of opinion within the FBI. The false accusation became the unanimous view. In exactly the same way, George Tenet’s CIA eventually joined in endorsing a manifestly false view that there was a linkage between al Qaeda and the government of Iraq.
In the words of George Orwell: “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”
Whenever power is unchecked and unaccountable it almost inevitably leads to mistakes and abuses. In the absence of rigorous accountability, incompetence flourishes. Dishonesty is encouraged and rewarded.
Last week, for example, Vice President Cheney attempted to defend the Administration’s eavesdropping on American citizens by saying that if it had conducted this program prior to 9/11, they would have found out the names of some of the hijackers.
Tragically, he apparently still doesn’t know that the Administration did in fact have the names of at least 2 of the hijackers well before 9/11 and had available to them information that could have easily led to the identification of most of the other hijackers. And yet, because of incompetence in the handling of this information, it was never used to protect the American people.
It is often the case that an Executive Branch beguiled by the pursuit of unchecked power responds to its own mistakes by reflexively proposing that it be given still more power. Often, the request itself it used to mask accountability for mistakes in the use of power it already has.
Moreover, if the pattern of practice begun by this Administration is not challenged, it may well become a permanent part of the American system. Many conservatives have pointed out that granting unchecked power to this President means that the next President will have unchecked power as well. And the next President may be someone whose values and belief you do not trust. And this is why Republicans as well as Democrats should be concerned with what this President has done. If this President’s attempt to dramatically expand executive power goes unquestioned, our constitutional design of checks and balances will be lost. And the next President or some future President will be able, in the name of national security, to restrict our liberties in a way the framers never would have thought possible.
The same instinct to expand its power and to establish dominance characterizes the relationship between this Administration and the courts and the Congress.
In a properly functioning system, the Judicial Branch would serve as the constitutional umpire to ensure that the branches of government observed their proper spheres of authority, observed civil liberties and adhered to the rule of law. Unfortunately, the unilateral executive has tried hard to thwart the ability of the judiciary to call balls and strikes by keeping controversies out of its hands – notably those challenging its ability to detain individuals without legal process — by appointing judges who will be deferential to its exercise of power and by its support of assaults on the independence of the third branch.
The President’s decision to ignore FISA was a direct assault on the power of the judges who sit on that court. Congress established the FISA court precisely to be a check on executive power to wiretap. Yet, to ensure that the court could not function as a check on executive power, the President simply did not take matters to it and did not let the court know that it was being bypassed.
The President’s judicial appointments are clearly designed to ensure that the courts will not serve as an effective check on executive power. As we have all learned, Judge Alito is a longtime supporter of a powerful executive – a supporter of the so-called unitary executive, which is more properly called the unilateral executive. Whether you support his confirmation or not – and I do not – we must all agree that he will not vote as an effective check on the expansion of executive power. Likewise, Chief Justice Roberts has made plain his deference to the expansion of executive power through his support of judicial deference to executive agency rulemaking.
And the Administration has supported the assault on judicial independence that has been conducted largely in Congress. That assault includes a threat by the Republican majority in the Senate to permanently change the rules to eliminate the right of the minority to engage in extended debate of the President’s judicial nominees. The assault has extended to legislative efforts to curtail the jurisdiction of courts in matters ranging from habeas corpus to the pledge of allegiance. In short, the Administration has demonstrated its contempt for the judicial role and sought to evade judicial review of its actions at every turn.
But the most serious damage has been done to the legislative branch. The sharp decline of congressional power and autonomy in recent years has been almost as shocking as the efforts by the Executive Branch to attain a massive expansion of its power.
I was elected to Congress in 1976 and served eight years in the house, 8 years in the Senate and presided over the Senate for 8 years as Vice President. As a young man, I saw the Congress first hand as the son of a Senator. My father was elected to Congress in 1938, 10 years before I was born, and left the Senate in 1971.
The Congress we have today is unrecognizable compared to the one in which my father served. There are many distinguished Senators and Congressmen serving today. I am honored that some of them are here in this hall. But the legislative branch of government under its current leadership now operates as if it is entirely subservient to the Executive Branch.
Moreover, too many Members of the House and Senate now feel compelled to spend a majority of their time not in thoughtful debate of the issues, but raising money to purchase 30 second TV commercials.
There have now been two or three generations of congressmen who don’t really know what an oversight hearing is. In the 70’s and 80’s, the oversight hearings in which my colleagues and I participated held the feet of the Executive Branch to the fire – no matter which party was in power. Yet oversight is almost unknown in the Congress today.
The role of authorization committees has declined into insignificance. The 13 annual appropriation bills are hardly ever actually passed anymore. Everything is lumped into a single giant measure that is not even available for Members of Congress to read before they vote on it.
Members of the minority party are now routinely excluded from conference committees, and amendments are routinely not allowed during floor consideration of legislation.
In the United States Senate, which used to pride itself on being the “greatest deliberative body in the world,” meaningful debate is now a rarity. Even on the eve of the fateful vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq, Senator Robert Byrd famously asked: “Why is this chamber empty?”
In the House of Representatives, the number who face a genuinely competitive election contest every two years is typically less than a dozen out of 435.
And too many incumbents have come to believe that the key to continued access to the money for re-election is to stay on the good side of those who have the money to give; and, in the case of the majority party, the whole process is largely controlled by the incumbent president and his political organization.
So the willingness of Congress to challenge the Administration is further limited when the same party controls both Congress and the Executive Branch.
The Executive Branch, time and again, has co-opted Congress’ role, and often Congress has been a willing accomplice in the surrender of its own power.
Look for example at the Congressional role in “overseeing” this massive four year eavesdropping campaign that on its face seemed so clearly to violate the Bill of Rights. The President says he informed Congress, but what he really means is that he talked with the chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate intelligence committees and the top leaders of the House and Senate. This small group, in turn, claimed that they were not given the full facts, though at least one of the intelligence committee leaders handwrote a letter of concern to VP Cheney and placed a copy in his own safe.
Though I sympathize with the awkward position in which these men and women were placed, I cannot disagree with the Liberty Coalition when it says that Democrats as well as Republicans in the Congress must share the blame for not taking action to protest and seek to prevent what they consider a grossly unconstitutional program.
Moreover, in the Congress as a whole-both House and Senate-the enhanced role of money in the re-election process, coupled with the sharply diminished role for reasoned deliberation and debate, has produced an atmosphere conducive to pervasive institutionalized corruption.
The Abramoff scandal is but the tip of a giant iceberg that threatens the integrity of the entire legislative branch of government.
It is the pitiful state of our legislative branch which primarily explains the failure of our vaunted checks and balances to prevent the dangerous overreach by our Executive Branch which now threatens a radical transformation of the American system.
I call upon Democratic and Republican members of Congress today to uphold your oath of office and defend the Constitution. Stop going along to get along. Start acting like the independent and co-equal branch of government you’re supposed to be.
But there is yet another Constitutional player whose pulse must be taken and whose role must be examined in order to understand the dangerous imbalance that has emerged with the efforts by the Executive Branch to dominate our constitutional system.
We the people are-collectively-still the key to the survival of America’s democracy. We-as Lincoln put it, “[e]ven we here”-must examine our own role as citizens in allowing and not preventing the shocking decay and degradation of our democracy.
Thomas Jefferson said: “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.”
The revolutionary departure on which the idea of America was based was the audacious belief that people can govern themselves and responsibly exercise the ultimate authority in self-government. This insight proceeded inevitably from the bedrock principle articulated by the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke: “All just power is derived from the consent of the governed.”
The intricate and carefully balanced constitutional system that is now in such danger was created with the full and widespread participation of the population as a whole. The Federalist Papers were, back in the day, widely-read newspaper essays, and they represented only one of twenty-four series of essays that crowded the vibrant marketplace of ideas in which farmers and shopkeepers recapitulated the debates that played out so fruitfully in Philadelphia.
Indeed, when the Convention had done its best, it was the people – in their various States – that refused to confirm the result until, at their insistence, the Bill of Rights was made integral to the document sent forward for ratification.
And it is “We the people” who must now find once again the ability we once had to play an integral role in saving our Constitution.
And here there is cause for both concern and great hope. The age of printed pamphlets and political essays has long since been replaced by television – a distracting and absorbing medium which sees determined to entertain and sell more than it informs and educates.
Lincoln’s memorable call during the Civil War is applicable in a new way to our dilemma today: “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Forty years have passed since the majority of Americans adopted television as their principal source of information. Its dominance has become so extensive that virtually all significant political communication now takes place within the confines of flickering 30-second television advertisements.
And the political economy supported by these short but expensive television ads is as different from the vibrant politics of America’s first century as those politics were different from the feudalism which thrived on the ignorance of the masses of people in the Dark Ages.
The constricted role of ideas in the American political system today has encouraged efforts by the Executive Branch to control the flow of information as a means of controlling the outcome of important decisions that still lie in the hands of the people.
The Administration vigorously asserts its power to maintain the secrecy of its operations. After all, the other branches can’t check an abuse of power if they don’t know it is happening.
For example, when the Administration was attempting to persuade Congress to enact the Medicare prescription drug benefit, many in the House and Senate raised concerns about the cost and design of the program. But, rather than engaging in open debate on the basis of factual data, the Administration withheld facts and prevented the Congress from hearing testimony that it sought from the principal administration expert who had compiled information showing in advance of the vote that indeed the true cost estimates were far higher than the numbers given to Congress by the President.
Deprived of that information, and believing the false numbers given to it instead, the Congress approved the program. Tragically, the entire initiative is now collapsing- all over the country- with the Administration making an appeal just this weekend to major insurance companies to volunteer to bail it out.
To take another example, scientific warnings about the catastrophic consequences of unchecked global warming were censored by a political appointee in the White House who had no scientific training. And today one of the leading scientific experts on global warming in NASA has been ordered not to talk to members of the press and to keep a careful log of everyone he meets with so that the Executive Branch can monitor and control his discussions of global warming.
One of the other ways the Administration has tried to control the flow of information is by consistently resorting to the language and politics of fear in order to short-circuit the debate and drive its agenda forward without regard to the evidence or the public interest. As President Eisenhower said, “Any who act as if freedom’s defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America.”
Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction. Justice Brandeis once wrote: “Men feared witches and burnt women.”
The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk.
Yet, in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the Bill of Rights.
Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of missiles poised to be launched against us and annihilate our country at a moment’s notice? Is America in more danger now than when we faced worldwide fascism on the march-when our fathers fought and won two World Wars simultaneously?
It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they. Yet they faithfully protected our freedoms and now it is up to us to do the same.
We have a duty as Americans to defend our citizens’ right not only to life but also to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is therefore vital in our current circumstances that immediate steps be taken to safeguard our Constitution against the present danger posed by the intrusive overreaching on the part of the Executive Branch and the President’s apparent belief that he need not live under the rule of law.
I endorse the words of Bob Barr, when he said, “The President has dared the American people to do something about it. For the sake of the Constitution, I hope they will.”
A special counsel should immediately be appointed by the Attorney General to remedy the obvious conflict of interest that prevents him from investigating what many believe are serious violations of law by the President. We have had a fresh demonstration of how an independent investigation by a special counsel with integrity can rebuild confidence in our system of justice. Patrick Fitzgerald has, by all accounts, shown neither fear nor favor in pursuing allegations that the Executive Branch has violated other laws.
Republican as well as Democratic members of Congress should support the bipartisan call of the Liberty Coalition for the appointment of a special counsel to pursue the criminal issues raised by warrantless wiretapping of Americans by the President.
Second, new whistleblower protections should immediately be established for members of the Executive Branch who report evidence of wrongdoing — especially where it involves the abuse of Executive Branch authority in the sensitive areas of national security.
Third, both Houses of Congress should hold comprehensive-and not just superficial-hearings into these serious allegations of criminal behavior on the part of the President. And, they should follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Fourth, the extensive new powers requested by the Executive Branch in its proposal to extend and enlarge the Patriot Act should, under no circumstances be granted, unless and until there are adequate and enforceable safeguards to protect the Constitution and the rights of the American people against the kinds of abuses that have so recently been revealed.
Fifth, any telecommunications company that has provided the government with access to private information concerning the communications of Americans without a proper warrant should immediately cease and desist their complicity in this apparently illegal invasion of the privacy of American citizens.
Freedom of communication is an essential prerequisite for the restoration of the health of our democracy.
It is particularly important that the freedom of the Internet be protected against either the encroachment of government or the efforts at control by large media conglomerates. The future of our democracy depends on it.
I mentioned that along with cause for concern, there is reason for hope. As I stand here today, I am filled with optimism that America is on the eve of a golden age in which the vitality of our democracy will be re-established and will flourish more vibrantly than ever. Indeed I can feel it in this hall.
As Dr. King once said, “Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.”