When the President breaks the law, he must be held accountable, and that is why I have introduced a resolution to censure the President for his actions. Yet, as we face a President who thinks he is above the law, most Republicans are willing to cede enormous power to the executive branch. Their actions are not just short-sighted, they are a departure from one of the Republican Partys defining goals: limiting government power.
Some Republicans are defending the Presidents conduct as appropriate and arguing he should have free rein to continue his program, regardless of whether it is legal. Others seek to grant him expanded statutory powers so as to make his illegal conduct legal. But current law already allows a wiretap to be turned on immediately as long as the government goes to the court within 72 hours. The President has claimed an inherent authority to wiretap Americans on American soil without a warrant that he thinks allows him to break this law. So why would anyone think the President will comply with any new proposal? The constitutional system of separation of powers demands that we check a President who recklessly grabs for power and ignores the rule of law, not reward himparticularly when the law he breaks is designed to protect innocent Americans from intrusive government powers.
As many Republicans focus on defending the President, they are losing sight of what ceding these powers to the President now will mean for their own party down the road. Those expansive powers will rest with whoever sits in the Oval Office. Republicans who argue today that the President has the power to ignore a law passed by Congress are relinquishing authority not just to this Republican President, but to future presidents of any party. They are helping to render future members of their own party powerless to check an executive who claims expansive powers under the Constitution or a future Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution.
A party that prides itself on limiting government, and supporting individual freedom and the rule of law, should think twice before it allows any President to ignore the laws that Congress passes. By supporting the President now, Republicans are making it tougher for members of their own party to challenge the power of future presidents and departing from their own values in the process. Thats a short-sighted strategy that wont serve either party, or the nation, in the long run. What would serve the nation, and support the rule of law, is for a few courageous Republicans to follow the example set during the Watergate scandal by standing up to a President of their own party, asking tough questions, and holding the President accountable for his abuse of power.
Russ Feingold is a U.S. senator from Wisconsin.