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Arlen Specter's Legacy

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For many Democrats, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter's change of Party affiliation was a mixed blessing. While the 79-year-old Specter is liberal on many social issues and probably gives Dems the 60th vote they need to reach cloture, his mercurial personality and increasingly erratic behavior are troubling. However, Specter views this political move as an opportunity to cement his legacy: reining in Presidential power and restoring the constitutional checks and balances destroyed by the Bush Administration.

Despite 44 years in the Republican Party, after Specter voted for President Obama's stimulus package, the GOP turned against him. Conservative former Congressman Pat Toomey announced he would run against Specter in the 2010 Pennsylvania Republican primary and took an early lead in the polls. Faced with a likely failure to secure his own Party's nomination for a sixth Senate term, Specter became a Democrat.

While many political observers see Specter's actions as self-serving, they give him the opportunity to follow through on his signature senatorial initiative: re-establishing clear limits on Presidential power.

Writing in the New York Review of Books Specter declared, "In the seven and a half years since September 11, the United States has witnessed one of the greatest expansions of executive authority in its history, at the expense of the constitutionally mandated separation of powers." He promised to take three steps "to restrain the executive branch."

"First, I intend to introduce legislation that will mandate Supreme Court review of lower court decisions in suits brought by the ACLU and others that challenge the constitutionality of the warrantless wiretapping program authorized by President Bush after September 11." [Emphasis added.] On December 16, 2005, the NEW YORK TIMES revealed the Bush Administration had been illegally wiretapping millions of Americans' digital communications. Specter and Senator Patrick Leahy, then the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary committee, were deliberately excluded from Administration briefings on the Terrorist Surveillance Program. When Specter scheduled hearings with the CEOs of AT&T, Verizon, and Bell South phone companies complicit with the Bush wiretapping program "Vice President Cheney went behind my back to persuade all of the other Republicans on the committee not to support the subpoena and to boycott the session I had called to discuss a possible private hearing." Specter seeks a Supreme Court review of Bush's wiretapping program.

"Second, I will reintroduce legislation to keep the courts open to suits filed against several major telephone companies that allegedly facilitated the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program." [Emphasis added.] After bemoaning the Bush Administration's treatment of detainees, Specter noted that it took seven years for US courts to grant habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo Bay prisoners. He observed that few courts "have been willing to take a strong stand on the Terrorist Surveillance Program." Specter seeks to expedite judicial review of important wiretapping cases and wants the complicit telephone companies held accountable.

"Further, I will reintroduce my legislation from 2006 and 2007 (the 'Presidential Signing Statements Act') to prohibit courts from relying on, or deferring to, presidential signing statements when determining the meaning of any Act of Congress." [Emphasis added.] In April of 2006, The Boston Globe revealed, "President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office." Specter wrote, "These signing statements are outrageous, intruding on the Constitution's delegation of 'all legislative powers' to Congress. The legislation I introduced in 2006 would have given Congress standing to challenge the constitutionality of signing statements, but it has until now failed to muster the veto-proof majority it would surely require." Specter's legislation would have the support of President Obama and the new Democratic congressional majority.

In his NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS article, Specter concluded, "These experiences have crystallized for me the need for Congress and the courts to reassert themselves in our system of checks and balances. The bills I have outlined are important steps in that process. Equally important is vigorous congressional oversight of the executive branch... I will continue the fight whatever happens."

If Arlen Specter had remained a Republican, it's unlikely the GOP would have supported his battle for "vigorous congressional oversight of the executive branch." Specter became a Democrat after extensive conversations with his friend, Vice President Biden. That's a positive indication the Obama Administration will support the positions that Specter expresses in his article. And sufficient reason to welcome Arlen Specter into the Democratic Party.

The Bush Administration expansion of presidential power threatened American democracy. Legal changes must be made to ensure this abuse of executive power isn't repeated. Arlen Specter should lead congressional action to restore our historic system of checks and balances. Let that be his legacy.

 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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