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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

kissing the American liberal republic goodbye « Previous | |Next »
June 8, 2006

An article in the New York Review of Books entitled 'Power Grab' by Elizabeth Drew is concerned with executive dominance in the US. It opens with the following statement:

During the presidency of George W. Bush, the White House has made an unprecedented reach for power. It has systematically attempted to defy, control, or threaten the institutions that could challenge it: Congress, the courts, and the press. It has attempted to upset the balance of power among the three branches of government provided for in the Constitution; but its most aggressive and consistent assaults have been against the legislative branch: Bush has time and again said that he feels free to carry out a law as he sees fit, not as Congress wrote it. Through secrecy and contemptuous treatment of Congress, the Bush White House has made the executive branch less accountable than at any time in modern American history. And because of the complaisance of Congress, it has largely succeeded in its efforts.

Bush has been issuing a series of signing statements which amount to a systematic attempt to take power from the legislative branch. To highlight the danger Drew quotes James Madison in Federalist Paper No. 47:
The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many...may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.

Congress is reluctant to make a move against the President's grab for power. Few people in Congress are protective of their institution or capable of looking beyond their parochial concerns to object and resist Bush's encroachments on the legislative branch.

This represents a shift to authority--to conservatism--and away from the liberal conception of ensuring that power is kept within bounds. This is a shift away from the liberal concern to use power to preserve liberty as conservatives do not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as used for the right purposes---national security and imperial power.

You can see the same shift to executive dominance happening in Australia. Inch by inch the constraints on the employment of executive power are demolished. The Howard Government stands for big government in Canberra, Howard has gnawed away at undermining federalism to amass further power for the commonwealth (water, industrial relations, energy etc) , and to increase the power of the executive vis-a vis Parliament by truncating the Senate.

This represents a shift away from liberalism to conservatism.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:59 PM | | Comments (2)


I think one of the Democrats (Haines?) said that every government will act to eradicate anything that stands in the way of absolute power. I think Kennet and the Auditor-general was used as an example.

A constitution is not much use if it is ignored, or liberally interpreted beyond its original meaning by a compliant judicature.

It is probably a good argument for a sortitionist body to represent the public's interest in reigning in political (criminal) excess.

The Drew article states that Bush has cited two grounds for flouting the will of Congress, or of unilaterally expanding presidential powers:

One is the claim of the "inherent" power of the commander in chief.Second is a heretofore obscure doctrine called the unitary executive, which gives the president power over Congress and the courts. The concept of a unitary executive holds that the executive branch can overrule the courts and Congress on the basis of the president's own interpretations of the Constitution, in effect overturning Marbury v. Madison (1803), which established the principle of judicial review, and the constitutional concept of checks and balances.

Drew says that the term "unitary government", as interpretated and used by Bush, is one that gives the executive power superior to that of Congress and the courts.

The concept of the unitary executive, which has been put forward in conservative circles for several years, has been advocated mainly by the Federalist Society, a group of conservative lawyers who also campaign for the nomination of conservative judges.

It's a figleaf for enlargening Presidential power at the expense of Congress and the Courts and hence goes against the republican concept of checks and balances on power.