What Is the Point of Congress?

Seems our neighbors in the northeast have grown over-weary of the current White House regime treating the Constitution and the laws enacted by The People's representatives like an optional menu.

Petitioners in Brattleboro gathered enough signatures (5 percent of the electorate) to put a question on their upcoming town ballot that calls for Bush and Cheney to be arrested "for crimes against our Constitution."

Predictably, Bush loyalists and assorted Drudge Report readers across the nation are none to pleased - even though the Vermont measure, which will be voted on March 4, is about as symbolic as they come.

News of the ballot question circulated through cyberspace. A storm of neo-complaints followed, hitting Brattleboro like a wicked Nor'eastah.

"In e-mail messages, voicemail messages and telephone calls (to Brattleboro officials), outraged people are calling the measure the equivalent of treason and vowing never to visit Vermont" the Associated Press reported.

One caller asked: "Has everyone up there been out in the cold too long?" Another said: "I would like to know how I could get some water from your town. It's obvious that there is something special in it."

Others, like Brent Caflisch of Rosemount, Minn., sent an e-mail message that was a bit less circumspect. Oh ya. "Maybe the terrorists will do us all a favor and attack your town next, our country would be much safer with several thousand dead wackjobs in Vermont," according to the AP account.

That's what they're calling defenders of the Constitution these days - "wackjobs," like Paul Craig Roberts.

Though he's not a Brattleboro resident, Roberts is one of millions of Americans bitten by the same impeachment bug buzzing around Brattleboro. He also happens to be the former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during the Reagan administration, former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, contributing editor of National Review and author of the book "The Tyranny of Good Intentions."

Roberts breaks it down like this: "In truth, Congress gave up its law-making powers to the executive branch during the New Deal. For three-quarters of a century, the bills passed by Congress have been authorizations for executive branch agencies to make laws in the form of regulations. The executive branch has come to the realization that it doesn't really need Congress. President Bush appends his own 'signing statements' to the authorizations from Congress in which the President says what the legislation means. So what is the point of Congress?"

In case you're wondering, a "signing statement" is a presidential footnote attached to a law passed by Congress. It instructs the executive branch on how to interpret the law, essentially giving the president line-item veto power to cherry-pick provisions of law to be followed or ignored, turning the idea of checks-and-balances into a joke.

Historically, signing statements have been used, on rare occasion, by Republican and Democrat administrations going back to the days of James Monroe and Andrew Jackson. But since Reagan, signing statements have been used with increasing frequency. According to the Law Library of Congress, No. 43 has issued over 700!

Ironically, perhaps, it was candidate Clinton's husband, and now fierce campaigner, whose promiscuous use of signing statements was checked by the Supreme Court in the 1998 case Clinton vs. City of New York, declaring line item vetoes unconstitutional.

Now, with everyone focused on the primaries, Bush gives us another example in signing the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act last week, attaching a signing statement even after having rejected Congress' first version because it would have supposedly made the Iraqi government vulnerable to "expensive lawsuits."

Congressional Quarterly reported on the provisions Bush intends to ignore: "One such provision sets up a commission to probe contracting fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another expands protections for whistleblowers who work for government contractors. A third requires that U.S. intelligence agencies promptly respond to congressional requests for documents. And a fourth bars funding for permanent bases in Iraq and for any action that exercises U.S. control over Iraq's oil money." For more, see here.

Bush may be a lame-duck but don't sleep. If Congress doesn't grow a Brattleboro-like backbone and impeach this administration before they leave office the precedent will be set and the Constitutional question of the future will be the one Roberts is asking: what is the point of Congress?

Sean Gonsalves is a syndicated columnist and assistant news editor at the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at sgonsalves@capecodonline.com

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