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The role of Congress in checking the power of the president

Legislators' failure to maintain the balance of powers has contributed to present troubles.

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Poor President Bush. He was only trying to defeat terrorists and spread democracy, and here he is up to his neck in Democrats and bad news.

The Army has shamefully neglected wounded veterans. Many soldiers in Iraq who have not been either killed or wounded have had their tours extended. They are fighting with equipment that is ready for retirement or soon will be. When the president sent more troops, some of them minimally trained, in a surge to end the violence, the violence continued.

The Justice Department fired eight US attorneys and can't get its stories straight about why. Did the initiative originate in Justice or from the White House?

The CIA ran secret prisons abroad where it was beyond the reach of US law. In Iraq, several US soldiers were caught abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The US recently built a new prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where, it says, the president can do as he pleases. The vice president's former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, has been convicted of lying about when and how he learned of Valerie Plame's status as a CIA officer. When Mr. Bush traveled to Uruguay, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez went to Argentina to organize anti-American demonstrations. And the FBI has been basing applications for search warrants on inaccurate information. The list goes on.

Some of these are only embarrassments. The misdeeds of the CIA and FBI are more serious. They violate basic American values long enshrined in the Constitution. By thus erasing the difference between us and the enemy, we are already losing the war on terror.

The FBI's behavior reflects the culture embedded in the bureau by its founding director, J. Edgar Hoover, who, in the words of former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, "never took orders from an attorney general, rarely from a president, and only occasionally from God." An example is the bureau's harassment of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) during the Iran-contra affair in the 1980s. The Senate Intelligence Committee (those were the days when oversight committees oversaw) reported that the FBI made 178 investigations of people connected with CISPES. These generated files on 1,330 groups and 2,375 individuals. In 1989, Sen. William Cohen (R) of Maine, then ranking minority member of the committee, joined in demanding that the bureau's CISPES files be destroyed. Instead, the bureau sent them to the National Archives. A federal judge found in 1991 that the FBI continued to investigate CISPES after having been ordered to stop in 1985.

On Capitol Hill, both the Senate and House are wreaking havoc on the Bush policy in Iraq. Bush came to the White House with an exaggerated notion of the powers of the president based on the constitutional provision making him commander in chief. September 11 gave him the opportunity to expand this notion. The Republicans in Congress were cheerleaders for him; Democrats were paralyzed by political cowardice.

But he is commander in chief only of the armed forces, not of the country. The Constitution gives Congress a number of powers to complement the president's role as commander in chief. They include the power "[t]o raise and support Armies ... [t]o provide and maintain a Navy ... [t]o make rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces ... [t]o provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia...."

These powers, plus the congressional power to declare war, considerably modify the role of the commander in chief. Much of American history is concerned with struggles between the president and Congress over where to draw the line between themselves. There has been a back-and-forth swing of the pendulum between the two branches, sometimes accompanied by bitter disputes, as in the cases of Vietnam and now Iraq. The most important congressional power is the control of money. The power of the purse was what ultimately ended US involvement in Vietnam.

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Unless Bush makes a sharp change in direction not only in Iraq but especially in how he looks at the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, his principal legacy could well be a dysfunctional government.

Members of Congress in both parties need to take another look at their own role vis-à-vis the president and how their failure to assert themselves post-9/11 contributed to the country's present troubles.

• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


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