Return of the Imperial Presidency

A supine Congress is handing Bush powers even LBJ would have envied. With a war on Iraq in the offing, lawmakers need some spine

By Howard Gleckman

Much has been said about how George W. Bush, self-described conservative, is turning into a Big Government kind of guy. From education reform to a crackdown on securities fraud, Bush is embracing a more powerful and intrusive federal government.

He seems, however, to have in mind a very particular kind of national power: a return to what used to be called the Imperial Presidency. Bush's allies like to portray him as a rough-riding Teddy Roosevelt-like figure. But Bush's real view of government is more reminiscent of Teddy's cousin, Franklin. Whether it is foreign policy, trade, or the domestic agenda, Bush has taken dramatic FDR-style steps to consolidate power in the White House. And, thanks to a puppy-like Congress that seems unwilling to stand up for its own prerogatives, Bush is becoming the most powerful chief executive since fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson, who was not otherwise a candidate for a Bush role model.


  Post-September 11, it was no surprise that Congress was willing to give the President wide latitude in his efforts to fight terrorism at home. But Bush demanded, and got, something of a blank check. He won the right to spend funds as he saw fit, with far more flexibility than Presidents get in normal congressional appropriation bills. He has asserted the right to detain without charge or trial Americans suspected of supporting terrorism. The last President to use this power, Abraham Lincoln, at least asked for such authority. Bush has simply done it.

And now, in his push to win congressional approval of his new Office of Homeland Security, Bush is demanding broad power to overhaul federal civil service laws and hire, fire, and promote 170,000 government workers at will. Civil service reform may be a good idea. But by demanding it under the guise of homeland security, Bush is pushing Congress to abdicate another layer of authority.

The Senate's often-cantankerous Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) has slowed the Homeland Security bill and is demanding that Congress look more closely at some of its provisions. People in Washington roll their eyes when Byrd lectures about the responsibilities of Congress in the federal system. But his fellow senators should listen to what Byrd has to say before they write Bush yet another blank check.


  They should also look harder at what they have done by giving Bush enhanced authority to negotiate trade agreements around the world. Known in Washingtonese as "fast track," or trade promotion authority, the measure gives Bush extraordinary power to cut deals with foreign governments. By passing the measure, Congress has abdicated its right to amend such trade treaties. It must either vote to approve agreements negotiated by the White House or kill them. It can no longer change them.

Fast track has become a litmus test for free trade. If you are for it, you are defined as a supporter of open markets. If you oppose it, you are tarred as a protectionist. And, indeed, unions and other critics of trade deals have used their clout on Capitol Hill to crush trade pacts in the past.

But by approving fast track, Congress has emasculated itself. Take one example. Earlier this year, Congress passed and Bush signed a massive agriculture subsidy bill. By approving fast track, Congress has now given Bush the power to negotiate away the provisions in that law. The farm bill was a terrible, pork-laden measure. But it was a law duly enacted by the Congress. Now the same lawmakers have in effect given Bush the extraordinary power to unilaterally rewrite it.


  But the real test will come in foreign affairs. The nation is already fighting an undeclared war against terrorism. Not only are U.S. forces at risk in Afghanistan, but they are also fighting in the Philippines and most likely other nations as well.

The need for formal congressional approval for such a shadow war is admittedly murky. But there should be no confusion when it comes to what the White House has led us all to believe is its next step: a war against Iraq. Congress has a responsibility to enact a declaration of war before such an operation begins. Bush's father was wise enough to seek a congressional OK for his 1991 attack on Iraq. Now, the current President Bush should do the same.

There is little sign, though, that he will do that. And, sadly, there is even less indication that Congress will insist upon it. If Bush's Iraqi invasion goes badly, we will all come to regret both the President's power grab and the Congress' acquiescence. And, like LBJ and FDR before him, Bush will learn a costly lesson about the limits of the Imperial Presidency.

Gleckman is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Tuesday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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