Sunday, March 25, 2007

One Subpoena, Two Subpoena, Three Subpoena, Four...

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In 1994, Newt Gingrich was practically rubbing his hands with glee over the fact that the new Republican-majority Congress would be able to have the power of oversight.

"Washington just can't imagine a world in which Republicans would have subpoena power," Gingrich chortled.

And subpoena they did. Dan Burton, chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, seemed intent on subpoenaing everyone in the White House except Socks the Cat. More than 1,000 subpoenas were issued, including one for the White House Christmas card list.

Now that the House is back in Democratic hands, however, the Republicans don't seem so enamored of the whole oversight thing, especially when it comes to hauling the White House staff in to testify.

As it becomes increasingly clear that administration officials, including Karl "Bush's Brain" Rove, were a lot more involved in politically motivated firings of U.S. attorneys than they'd previously let on, Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy indicated that he wanted Rove and White House counsel Harriet Miers to come to the Hill and testify about their role in the firings.

In a press conference Tuesday, a petulant George Dubbya Bush blustered that he was willing to "go to the mat" to keep Rove and Miers from testifying under oath. He'd let them be "interviewed," he said, but not if they had to raise their hands and swear to tell the truth. Further, there'd be no transcript allowed of their remarks.

White House mouthpiece Tony Snow said "precedent" was what was driving the president's decision. "It has been traditional in all White Houses not to have staffers testify on Capitol Hill," he asserted.

Oh, really? Because as it turns out, 31 Clinton staffers actually testified on 41 separate occasions, including three chiefs of staff (McClarty, Bowles, and Podesta) and four White House counsels. In fact, according to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, White House staffers from the Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, and yes, Clinton administrations have all testified before Congress on a variety of matters.

Oops! Good thing Tony wasn't under oath when he told that whopper, huh?

It's perhaps understandable that no one in the administration wants to be put into a situation where not telling "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" might have some sort of negative consequences. After all, this is an administration that has always defined "the truth" as "whatever we can sell the yokels so they'll back our play this week." And look what happened to poor Scooter Libby for lying to a mere grand jury.

Dubbya claimed to be "worried about the precedent that might be set" if people "weren't free to walk into the Oval Office and say 'Mr. President, I've got something on my mind,'" as if staffers just wandered in all the time to gab about whatever brainstorm pops into their heads.

It occurred to me that Dubbya's words sounded vaguely familiar. Then I remembered a speech I'd heard long ago. It went something like this:

"It is even more important that the confidentiality of conversations between a president and his advisers be protected. This is no mere luxury, to be dispensed with whenever a particular issue raises sufficient uproar. It is absolutely essential to the conduct of the presidency, in this and in all future administrations ... persons talking with the president would never again be sure that recordings or notes of what they said would not suddenly be made public. No one would want to advance tentative ideas that might later seem unsound . ... That is why I shall continue to oppose efforts which would set a precedent that would cripple all future presidents by inhibiting conversations between them and those they look to for advice."

The speaker, of course, was Richard Nixon. And what he was trying to keep away from the Congress were tape-recorded conversations that proved he was involved in the Watergate coverup right up to his beady little eyeballs. The Supreme Court overruled his claims of "executive privilege," ordered the release of the tapes, and the Imperial Presidency of Richard Nixon fell. Yet somehow the office of president, and the ability of advisers to advise, seemed to survive.

Now we have another president-who-would-be-king making the same failed argument of executive privilege. Perhaps he thinks he's got a Supreme Court now that'll be more friendly to his claims of unsupervised and unlimited power and privilege. For all our sakes, I hope he's wrong.

If this one's headed for the Supremes, as seems likely, we can only hope that the "strict constructionists," who disdain anything not explicitly laid out in the Constitution, will note that "executive privilege" isn't mentioned there, and further that they'll have respect for the precedents that actually exist, not the ones made up by the Bushistas.

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