Why We Act
Thursday 02 March 2006
Before sharing some thoughts with you, I wanted to make sure all of you know about an important event in New York City at 8pm tonight. Harper's Magazine is hosting a public forum entitled "Is There a Case for Impeachment?" It will be moderated by Sam Seder of Air America Radio's the Majority Report. I will be on the panel with Lewis H. Lapham, the editor of Harper's and recent author of an article I highly recommend "The Case for Impeachment" (the web article is an excerpt, get the magazine for the whole thing).
We will be joined by Michael Ratner, the President of the Center for Constitutional Rights; my former House Judiciary colleague who served with me during the impeachment of President Nixon, Liz Holtzman; and John Dean, a renowned legal scholar and former White House counselor to President Nixon.
More information can be found at the Harper's website. For those who cannot attend (and my understanding is that the event is at or near capacity) I am told that the Majority Report will be airing it live and C-span will be taping it for a later date.
For some time, I have opened some of my speeches with a fairly standard line about how great democracy is because hardly anyone votes but everyone complains. There is a new variation on this problem among some in the progressive community and it goes like this: nothing we do matters, nothing we do changes anything so why bother doing anything. Here are a few thoughts I will touch upon tonight that I offer in response:
Why We Act
There are few roles in our constitutional government that are more frustrating than being a member of the minority party during a period of one party control of the government. However, at a time when the majority party in general - and the president in particular - appears to be acting in open violation of the laws and the constitution, there are few jobs which are more important to the future of our democratic form of government.
People think of Watergate, or Iran Contra as constituting crises. They were in the sense that an executive branch was acting in violation of the law, and in tension with the majority party in the congress. But in the end, the system worked, the abuses were investigated, and actions were taken - even if presidential pardons ultimately prevented a full measure of justice.
Today, the crisis is substantively and systemically far worse. The alleged acts of wrongdoing - lying about the decision to go to war; manipulation of intelligence; facilitating and countenancing torture; using confidential information to out a CIA agent; open and flagrant violations of federal wiretap laws - are far more egregious than any I have witnessed in my 41 years in Congress. The majority party has shown no ability to engage in simple oversight, let alone challenge the Administration directly. The courts, while operating as an occasional and partial check, are institutionally incapable of delving into most of the controversies we are presented with as a result of limitations on standing, ripeness, and other doctrines. The media, which is increasingly concentrated, was shell-shocked and in some respects cowered by 9/11, and for the most part unwilling to alienate the party in charge.
Faced with that dilemma, we had a choice. We could simply ignore the myriad of transgressions being committed, and continue to reacting to the legislative agenda put before us by the Republican Party on a day-to-day basis, or we could do everything in our power to call attention to and document these very grave abuses of power. I opted for the latter course.
I could not live with myself or my children, if when faced with an Administration that went to war under false pretenses, used classified information to smear political opponents; and wiretapped innocent Americans without warrants, I did not formally respond to it. If the Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the constitution, is silent on these matters, who else can we expect to speak out?
So for the last several years I have:
All of this constitutes a public record of the constitutional abuses we have seen, and is designed to stand the test of time. It comes on top of the hearings and Report I prepared on the electoral abuses in Ohio which led to an unprecedented electoral college challenge in the House and the Senate.
Now let me add, in many respects, this is just the tip of the iceberg of the policy failures of this Administration. Over the last six years we have seen a record budget surplus turn into a record deficit; we face trade deficits as far as they eye can see and the near evisceration of our manufacturing base; we have a record number of individuals and families who do not have health insurance; we passed a disastrous Medicare sell out bill; we went through the debacle of Congress and the President politicizing the tragic Terry Schiavo case; Port Security is abysmal, the Homeland Security Department is a joke, and yesterday we learned that Bush knew very well that the levees in New Orleans could be breached even though he later said no one anticipated it. These are all weighty, serious issues.
They present significant problems for our nation as well, however, they are not of the same constitutional magnitude as the other issues we're talking about today.
There can be no doubt that today we are in a constitutional crisis that threatens the system of checks and balances that has preserved our fundamental freedoms for more than 200 years. Just because the president's approval ratings is down to 34% and the vice president's approval is down to 18%, does not mean they cannot do severe, long term harm to our nation. Our actions and tonight's forum are an important clarion call to anyone who is listening - that there is a constitutional line that even a president cannot cross without our people standing up and fighting for their democracy.