A showdown looms

Once again, George W. Bush appears to have thumbed his nose at legislation he doesn’t like without having to resort to a veto. His extensive use of memorandums to thwart provisions of bills he regards as unconstitutional, a threat to national security or impair foreign relations has a mixed bag of congressional leaders up in arms, particularly in the Senate, where his action is seen as an extension of White House efforts to increase the power of the presidency at the expense of Congress.

At least that’s the way even some members of his own party regard his unprecedented reliance on a device that has allowed him to ignore or change an estimated 750 bills.

The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who has been at odds with the White House on several occasions of late, reportedly stated that he viewed the president’s use of signing statements as clear evidence that Bush believes he can do as he pleases. There has been growing uneasiness among lawmakers about the president’s decision to ignore certain actions rather than use his veto power. He has not vetoed one bill in his nearly six years in office. The president has inserted statements into 110 bills as compared to 30 by Jimmy Carter.

In defense of this action, the Justice Department has said that the president has an obligation to make certain the Constitution is upheld and that signing letters protect legislation that might be found unconstitutional at some future time.

Every president struggles to gain leverage over Congress, and the balance of power seems to swing with the forcefulness of the chief executive and the size of his election victory. Following Carter, who was seen as often weak and vacillating, Ronald Reagan became a popular powerful presence even though Democrats controlled both houses most of his two terms in office. His end to the air traffic controllers’ strike immediately after taking office established the perception that he was a strong leader.

Wartime presidents particularly have held the power balance. Bush, despite his poor overall performance ratings and two election victories that were hardly mandates, has used the terrorist threat and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to take back some of the authority eroded by Congress during the Bill Clinton years.

Riding the crest of the 2001 terrorist attacks on America, Bush managed to win approval of one controversial measure after another, including a resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq. The Patriot Act extended his reach so far into the touchy area of civil liberty that it drew the opposition of influential groups from across the ideological spectrum.

Among the bills the president has reserved the right to ignore as constitutionally iffy are provisions protecting corporate whistle-blowers, governing affirmative-action programs, establishing qualifications for executive appointees and requiring executive agencies to gather certain statistics, all of which are seen by the White House as encroaching on presidential authority.

But some Republicans as well as Democrats have complained bitterly that Bush has ignored restrictions on the Patriot Act, particularly as they pertain to congressional oversight. His decision to ignore aspects of a bill banning torture adopted overwhelmingly by Congress has raised ire on both sides on Capitol Hill.

All this appears headed for a historic showdown between the executive and legislative branches following this fall’s midterm elections, especially if Democrats regain control of one or both houses. Democratic leaders in the House already have announced they would conduct a series of investigations on controversial issues if they win back control. They have even unwisely hinted of potential impeachment hearings, depending on where their investigations lead.

The power struggle between these two branches began with George Washington and has ebbed and flowed since. The Senate has been the site of most of the friction. Lyndon Johnson used to say that the first thing any president should learn is that there are at least 99 members of the Senate who believe they can do the job better than he can. As one of the most powerful majority leaders in Senate history before becoming president, he knew better than anyone else the clash of egos and personalities between the two branches. Yet even LBJ, beset by an unpopular war, had monumental problems despite all his Capitol Hill ties.

Bush’s next two years could be the same.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)