Column: The Public Eye: Attempting to Derail a Presidental Dictatorship

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday July 11, 2006

Many progressives view the November mid-term elections as a referendum on the presidency of George Bush and the ineptitude of his rubber-stamp Republican Congress.  

Voters have an opportunity to express their views on the war in Iraq, the economy, and immigration. Yet lurking behind these serious problems is an issue that most Americans are only vaguely aware of: Bush’s ruthless drive to increase the power of the presidency. 

His plan to move the United States away from a system with three equally powerful branches of government—the executive, legislative, and judicial—and replace them with an omnipotent, “unitary,” president. The critical issue to be decided on Nov. 7 is whether or not Congress will stand up to Dictator Dubya. 

In a May interview in the Washington Post, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gave some indication of what Democrats plan to do if they take back control of the House in the November elections. She said that during their first week in power Dems “would raise the minimum wage, roll back parts of the Republican prescription drug law, implement homeland security measures and reinstate lapsed budget deficit controls.” 

Pelosi went on to promise “a series of investigations of the Bush administration” including their use of intelligence data to justify the invasion of Iraq. It is the threat of these investigations that has riled Republicans. They don’t want the public made aware of Bush’s power grab. They don’t want average Americans to comprehend that Dubya has become a greater threat to democracy than the terrorists he frequently warns us about. 

In a June 22 article in the New York Review of Books, veteran political reporter Elizabeth Drew described the elements of administration’s design for an omnipotent presidency. The first is the widespread use of the “signing statement.” President Bush has amended more than 750 laws by attaching a statement saying that because, in his opinion, the law in question impinges on the power of the presidency, he considers it “advisory in nature.” 

In other words, George Bush doesn’t veto laws; he signs them in carefully orchestrated photo-ops and later attaches a signing statement indicating that he plans to ignore the provisions in the law he doesn’t agree with. 

The fact that Bush consciously subverts the will of Congress is, in itself, the basis for public hearings and national dialogue about his abrogation of the separation of powers. But “signing statements” are just one of the devices that Dubya has used to expand the power of the Presidency.  

According to Republicans, since 9/11 the United States has been in a perpetual state of war and this justifies George Bush’s repeated use of his constitutional powers as “commander in chief.” First, the administration created the designation of “enemy combatant” for those captured in Afghanistan. The White House decided that combatants were not to be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions or to be accorded the due process rights given to defendants in the United States; most were lodged in Guantanamo or in CIA-administered prisons outside the United States. At the same time, the president decided that it was permissible to torture these detainees in order to determine whether they knew of any plans to attack the United States. The fact that the administration condoned torture influenced the interrogation techniques used in Iraq, resulting in the scandals at Abu Ghraib and other facilities. 

Subsequently, Congress passed “the McCain amendment,” which banned cruel, inhuman, or degraded treatment” of POWs. After he signed the McCain amendment, George Bush attached a signing statement: “The executive branch shall construe [the torture provision] in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judiciary.” In other words, Bush would do what he thought was best, regardless of the intent of Congress. 

In December, the New York Times revealed that President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to monitor domestic phone calls in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Bush justified this both on the basis of his war powers as commander-in-chief and his contention that the FISA act was illegal as it limited the “inherent powers” of the Executive branch. (On June 22, the Times reported that Bush authorized the CIA and Treasury Departments to monitor all flows of funds in and out of the US.) 

Since 9/11, George Bush and his closest advisers have seized upon the threat of another terrorist attack as the basis for an unprecedented expansion of presidential powers. A Republican-controlled Congress is unwilling to check this power grab because they are beholden to Bush the politician for much of their financial support. 

Thus, Capitol Hill “business as usual” has seen the GOP ignore Dubya’s dictatorial designs. That’s why it is so important that Democrats seize control of one or both wings of Congress in November. Our democratic form of government is at risk and someone needs to do something about it. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at