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Executive Power Gone Wild

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   DUMMERSTON, Vt. — A recent Associated Press opinion poll found that public approval of Congress' job performance has fallen to 24 percent, its lowest level in a year.

    Since President Bush's approval rating is in the same neighborhood that Congress' currently resides, this may suggest a bit of "pox on both your houses" thinking by Americans.

    The AP found that many Americans believe that Congress and the White House are spending more time bickering than solving problems. At the same time, it appears that Congress is getting more of the blame than the president.

    Chalk that up the ability of the White House to keep spinning Bush's stupidity, stubbornness and refusal to acknowledge reality into principled resolve.

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    Up until this year, the Republican-controlled Congress functioned as a rubber-stamp for the President. In his first five years in office, President Bush vetoed only one bill — a stem-cell research measure.

    That setup worked well for Bush and his belief that Congress exists merely to approve what he proposes, not to come up with alternative policies.

    With Democrats taking control of Congress this year, there has been more action on a variety of issues — from restoring accountability on the executive branch, to expanding the federal Children's Health Insurance Program, to reducing interest payments on college loans.

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    Now that there is no longer a rubber-stamp Congress willing to give him everything he wants, Bush is willing to start aggressively using his veto power. There are now currently 18 bills that the White House has threatened to veto — amounting to more than half of the House's work so far this year.

    Aside from a meager increase in the federal minimum wage, much of the Democratic agenda in the House has been stymied by either Bush or the Senate, where Democrats do not have a large enough working majority to move legislation.

    A good example of this is the battle over continuing the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Democrats passed a bill in May that set a timetable for getting out of Iraq. Bush vetoed it. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently went as far to say that Bush will defy any legislation that Congress approves regarding how the war should be conducted.

    Now Bush is threatening vetoes of appropriations bills for Department of Homeland security, the State Department and the Interior Department. He's threatened vetoes of legislation requiring investigations and punishments for energy price gouging and to require Medicare to negotiate with the drug companies for lower prices. And he still says he will veto any new bill that would set timelines on the Iraq war.

    In short, Bush knows as long as the Democratic majorities in Congress are not large enough to override his vetoes, he holds all the cards in any legislative battle. And if a law does get enacted, he will ignore it, as shown by the more than 900 "signing statements" he has attached to legislation over the past six years — in effect, saying to Congress that "we'll do what we want and you can't stop us."

    Perhaps the ultimate proof of that came last week, when the Bush administration claimed that Congress has no power to pursue contempt charges against White House officials once the president invokes executive privilege.

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    Under federal law, a contempt citation from Congress must be submitted to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who then brings the matter before a grand jury to be acted upon. But the Bush administration sees it differently. The Washington Post reported that the consensus in the White House is that once the president declares that testimony or documents are protected from release by executive privilege, Congress cannot force a U.S. attorney to bring contempt charges.

    Congress hadn't been formally told of the White House's plans. But it is consistent with the administration's "unitary executive" theory of government, where presidential power trumps the powers of the judicial and legislative branches.

    Come September, when key decisions are due to be made about the Iraq war, and the various investigations into White House wrongdoing are expected to heat up, Congress will find itself tied up fighting the president not only for the testimony of his key officials, but for the continued funding for about half of the federal government.

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Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at randyholhut@yahoo.com.

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