President Bush has not been shy about exercising the powers of the presidency, even claiming some that don’t exist, but there is one presidential prerogative of which he has been unusually chary — the power to pardon.
The Constitution clearly states the president shall have “Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States” and most presidents have taken advantage of their right to exercise clemency. For whatever reason, Bush has granted fewer pardons than his recent predecessors, including his father, and far fewer than such presidents as Harry Truman who granted 2,044 in his eight years in office.
To date, Bush has pardoned 157 people and commuted the sentences of six, including that of top Cheney aide Scooter Libby who got his commutation almost instantly from an administration where the process has operated glacially.
And Bush has denied clemency applications at much greater rates than his predecessors, turning down 1,429 requests for pardons and 5,683 requests for commutations.
In the first two years of his term, he granted none and only 19 in the next two years. In 2008, so far the most merciful years of his presidency, he has granted 44.
By way of some explanation, the Justice Department’s pardon office, which reviews the applications and makes recommendations to the White House, suffered from turmoil and mismanagement and by last October had built up a backlog 3,055 applications.
But last month the Justice Department named Ronald Rodgers to head the pardon office. Rodgers brings an impressive resume — Naval Academy graduate, Marine Corps lawyer, prosecutor and most recently head of the department’s drug intelligence unit. That should end the procedural snafus.
Now we need Bush to return to that discarded slogan “compassionate conservative.” And granting pardons is not without risk. President Clinton badly tainted the process by his 11th hour pardons, including the husband of one of his fundraisers. President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon was a factor in his losing the election. And Bush senior was heavily criticized for his pardons of Reagan administration officials convicted in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Finally, if the Founding Fathers hadn’t intended the president to use power of the pardon, they wouldn’t have mentioned it so prominently in the Constitution. It’s in the same sentence that makes the president the Commander in Chief of the U.S. military, a power Bush has had no qualms about exercising.