Lawless. Imperial. Rogue.
These labels have been attached to the Bush administration for the last three Take Back America (TBA) conferences. The annual conference hosted by the Campaign for America’s Future, does a bang up job each year highlighting the dark deeds of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. And, what better man for the job than House Judiciary Chair John Conyers. Turns out, the better man for the job may be the pre-House Judiciary Chair John Conyers.
TBA 2006: Challenging Lawlessness
In June 2006, Congressman Conyers was on fire at the TBA session “Challenging a Lawless President.” Still in the House minority, the great congressman from Michigan was hot on the trail of a lawless President Bush and his unbridled sidekick, Vice President Cheney.
Six months earlier, the congressman issued a report declaring, “We have found that there is substantial evidence the president, the vice-president and other high ranking members of the Bush administration misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq; misstated and manipulated intelligence information regarding the justification for such war; countenanced torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in Iraq; and permitted inappropriate retaliation against critics of their administration.”
Just before the conference, Representative Nancy Pelosi fearful of emboldening the Republicans during a critical election season, declared impeachment to be “off the table.” But when Representative Conyers approached the podium, he brought the TBA participants to their feet as he announced his next course of action. In brief, he introduced a resolution (H. Res. 635) that would create a select committee with subpoena authority to investigate the misconduct of the Bush administration with regard to the Iraq war and report on possible impeachable offenses. Inspired and hopeful, progressives hit the streets to help the Democrats take back the House and restore order in the government.
By August, Mr. Conyers had released the final version of the “Constitution in Crisis.” He described the report as “some 350 pages in length and is supported by more than 1,400 footnotes, compiles the accumulated evidence that the Bush administration has thumbed its nose at our nation’s laws, and the Constitution itself. Approximately 26 laws and regulations may have been violated by this administration’s conduct.” Certainly enough to begin impeachment hearings when one considers President Nixon’s were prompted by a simple burglary.
Mr. Conyers went on to say that “The administration also appears to have used the war on terror as an excuse to eviscerate the basic protections afforded to us in the Constitution. There have been warrantless wiretaps of law-abiding Americans, in clear contravention of federal law, not to mention the creation of a huge unchecked database on the phone records of innocent Americans.”
He lamented that “All the while, the Republican Congress sits idly by. Rather than performing its constitutional duty as a coequal branch. It has chosen to stymie any and all efforts at oversight. After six long years of deception, attacks and yes, outright lies, I am convinced the American people have had enough.”
Indeed the American people had had enough and three months later they handed the Democrats both the House and the Senate.
TBA 2007: Curbing Imperialism
Fast forward to June 2007, when the Take Back America crowd descended once again on the Washington Hilton. This time Congressman Conyers was to discuss “Curbing an Imperial Presidency.” Senior staff member to John Conyers, Burt Wides, delivered a prepared speech while the congressman tended to business on the Hill. “Since the last election we have begun to shrink Bush’s imperial presidency,” Wides read. In what manner the “imperial presidency” was shrinking remained unclear.
“President Bush has subverted the checks and balances that are the cornerstone of our freedoms. In most instances, the Republican Congress just went along with those abuses. The founding fathers must be spinning in their graves, not merely at Bush’s blatant erosion of their system, but also and perhaps more at Congress’ supine failure to protect the Constitution. Now that Democrats control Congress, we have a very clear and heavy responsibility to take back the Constitution.”
It wasn’t enough that the American people elected a Democratic majority that promised to rein in Bush and Cheney and hold them accountable. They were now charged with a new task. These efforts, according to Conyers, would only succeed with support of citizen groups committed to the Constitution. These groups had already been popping up across the country for years. Many were part of a broad coalition that makes up the organization AfterDowningStreet.org.
AfterDowningStreet, led by activist David Swanson, sprang to life in May 2005 to pressure both Congress and the media to investigate whether President Bush had committed impeachable offenses. The coalition borrowed its name from the incriminating Downing Street Memos that emerged in May and June of 2005.
Despite the subject matter, impeachment was never offered as a viable solution to “curbing the imperial presidency” by the TBA panelists. It was, however, on the minds of the audience and questions on impeachment dominated the Q&A session.
After all questions on impeachment were shot down by the panelists, Bob Fertik of Democrats.com addressed the panel. To a cheering audience, Fertik asserted “I think you’re completely misreading the politics in the country. All of the polls report that the majority of Americans support impeachment hearings, a solid majority of Americans and it’s not even being discussed. The American people were way ahead of Congress on Iraq and the American people are way ahead of Congress on impeachment. It’s just time to stop with the ridiculous excuses. The American people know the only way to hold Bush accountable is through impeachment.”
Determined to restore the Constitution and rule of law, groups made up of ordinary citizens, veterans, and constitutional experts forged ahead on their own. John Conyers had called for this and the people responded. Five weeks later, on July 23, an impeachment petition containing more than one million signatures was delivered directly to the congressman. When he told the participants that there were “not enough votes for” impeachment, a peaceful sit-in was held in his office. The group was promptly arrested and hauled off to be processed.
The following month, Congressman Conyers traveled to Newark, New Jersey to promote his national health care bill, H.R. 676 at the People’s March for Peace, Equality, Jobs and Justice. He found himself facing a diverse crowd of a few thousand calling for impeachment. The article, Dancing With Conyers, describes what happened next. “In what has become routine now, Conyers fed into the momentum asking ‘What should we do?’ ‘Impeach!’ cried the crowd. ‘What should we do?’ ‘Impeach’ and so it was repeated. The congressman went on to declare that we needed to bring back Rumsfeld and put him on trial and the big question was to decide who ought to go first.‘Cheney!’ shouted the crowd enthusiastically.”
To settle the crowd, Conyers offered to meet with activists afterwards. Leaders from the New Jersey Impeach Groups asked the congressman to initiate impeachment hearings. They were told to “work hard” and get one representative from New Jersey to sign onto Representative Kucinich’s resolution (H. Res. 333) to impeach Vice President Cheney. They explained that Congressman Donald Payne, who was on his way to the rally, had signed on a few weeks earlier.
The chair of the House Judiciary Committee grew solemn telling the group the risk of failing was too great. It was too risky to use powers granted by the Constitution to remove a few rogue leaders regardless of the consequences of not removing them. This type of exchange was becoming familiar to activists. A few weeks earlier at a meeting with progressive democrats in San Diego, Conyers told the group to get just three more members of Congress to back impeachment. At the time, there were 14 sponsors. Since the offer, 13 more members of Congress cosponsored H. Res. 333 with no movement within the House Judiciary Committee.
During the summer of 2007, Congressman Conyers crisscrossed the country. At every turn he was met with citizens who implored him to move on impeachment. In response, he coined a new phrase. At an August 28 town hall meeting in his home district in Michigan, constituents clamored for impeachment. Conyers announced, “Nancy Pelosi has impeachment ‘off the table,’ but that’s off her table, it is not off John Conyers’ table.” The crowd erupted in applause.
The same day in a telephone interview, the congressman discussed impeachment with journalist Amy Goodman. From the Democracy Now website:
‘”I’ve got the constitution in one hand and a calculator in the other,” House Judiciary Chair John Conyers (D–MI) said today on Democracy Now! when asked about the possibility of impeachment. Conyers said hearings could “make the record clear that there has been a great deal of violation of the sworn oath of office, abuses of power…but there isn’t the time for it.’ He also said he doesn’t think there are enough votes in the House and Senate to support impeachment.’
Clearly, rogue administrations aren’t the only ones adept at stonewalling.
Members of Congress have inexplicably chosen not to harness their duly granted powers to take on a criminal administration. Instead, they cling to previously failed efforts.
A very small sampling finds letters about “fixed” intelligence, letters spanning two years from John Conyers to Fred Fielding requesting information and documents concerning warrantless wiretapping, and a letter from John Conyers to President Bush requesting the release of the Hadley memo related to claims of uranium from Africa and the “16 words.”
There were several letters regarding the president’s signing statements including one from Senator Dick Durbin requesting confirmation from President Bush that he would indeed enforce legislation that was just enacted. Two years ago, Senator Leahy sent a letter to the president urging him to “cease and desist” from his unconstitutional use of presidential signing statements. GOP Senator Susan Collins sent President Bush a letter about opening letters.
The chair of the House Oversight Committee, Henry Waxman, sent letters to Fred Fielding on the mystery of the missing White House e-mails. Recently, there was a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey from 46 House Democrats asking how he will ensure the President follows Congress’ ban on permanent bases in Iraq. Congress is now relegated to asking an uncooperative Attorney General to make sure the President takes care that the laws be faithfully executed.
When a few years of polite inquiries fail to produce results, Congress moves onto subpoenas. When used within the context of a healthy government, subpoenas prove to be quite effective. Why Democrats think that an overreaching, unaccountable administration would readily respond or cooperate fully is mind boggling.
Last April, House Democrats issued five subpoenas in a single morning related to the U.S. attorney firings, the use of RNC email accounts, and the claim that Iraq sought uranium from Niger for a nuclear weapons program. According to the Washington Post, “The White House signaled that it will continue to resist efforts to secure testimony from Rice, Rove and other aides.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that she was “not inclined” to appear. To date, none of these issues have been resolved to the satisfaction of the House Democrats.
In February, eight months after issuing subpoenas to Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten, the House moved to initiate civil contempt proceedings. John Bresnahan of Politico.com reported, “Pelosi noted that Conyers had sent nine different letters to current White House Counsel Fred Fielding seeking a compromise that would allow Bolten and Miers to appear, but Fielding refused to allow either aide, or former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, to testify in public or under oath.”
Two weeks later, the Attorney General wrote a letter to Pelosi stating he would not refer congressional contempt citations to a grand jury or take any other action on the matter.
When all else fails, take ‘em to court. In 2006, John Conyers announced he was “Taking the President to Court.“ After a battle over a Republican budget bill, the president despite being warned by Democrats, signed a Senate version that Democrats claimed had not been passed by the House. The purpose of the lawsuit? To seek confirmation from the court that a bill not passed by the House and Senate is not a law. The lawsuit never made it to court. Perhaps he never sung along with School House Rock.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced last May that she would sue the President if he attached a signing statement to Congress’s Iraq funding bill. Of course, a simple and effective solution would be for the House Speaker to turn to Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution then quickly drop down to Section 4. [Note: There is no clause about the 2008 elections, time left or predetermining votes.]
This month after Mukasey refused to enforce Congressional subpoenas, House Democrats filed a lawsuit against White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers. And thus, the cycle continues.
In response to the Bush administration’s assertion that it did not require congressional approval for establishing any long-term security agreement with Iraq, the Congressional Progressive Caucus announced they were introducing new legislation to combat the situation. The legislation seeks to “reassert the constitutional powers of Congress in the shaping and conduct of U.S. foreign policy.”
A move like this is not without inherent risk. If the legislation fails to pass, it can serve to bolster the administration’s arguments. If it does pass, we’re right back to the signing statement which is what brought this whole issue out in the open in the first place. If Congress starts making a habit of creating new legislation to reinforce already established laws the country is headed down another dangerous path.
With a Heavy Heart
Whether a principled response to the administration’s lack of cooperation with Congress or a growing concern that a Democratic President might be equally uncooperative, Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), railed against the Bush administration last month. Rohrabacher whose aggressive support of rendition and lack of compassion for Iraqi refugees has upset many, has spoken out strongly against the administration for its “contemptuous disregard for Congress.”
In a lengthy speech the Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said, I have come to the sad conclusion that this administration has intentionally obstructed Congress’ rightful and constitutional duties.” Rohrabacher offers “When I hear my friends on the other side of the aisle accusing this administration of stonewalling, of coverups, or thwarting investigations, I sadly must concur with them.” He concludes, “We should not be setting precedents that the President of the United States has the lion’s share of the power in this great democracy of ours.” Are you listening, Nancy?
The Pelosi Factor
“I have said it before and I will say it again: Impeachment is off the table.”
When all efforts to effect checks and balances are thwarted and there is no other recourse to restore order in an administration gone wild, taking impeachment “off the table” really boils down to a matter of obstruction of justice. This begs the question why would the House Speaker obstruct justice?
Rarely discussed in the corporate media since initial reports is the fact that two of the most abhorrent impeachable offenses in the eyes of the American people were disclosed to Nancy Pelosi several years before they went public.
As the Washington Post reported late last year, in September 2002, along with three other members of Congress, Nancy Pelosi was briefed on “overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk. Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was water boarding.” The Washington Post reported that Pelosi did not raise any objections at the time.
In a 2006 oped, Nancy Pelosi remarked that the president’s admission that he authorized the electronic surveillance on Americans is a “wake-up call for intensive congressional oversight of intelligence activities.” With no expression of constitutional responsibility, she acknowledges that she, herself, had been informed of the president’s authorization. She went on to excuse herself by stating “But when the administration notifies Congress in this manner, it is not seeking approval.”
Former CIA analyst, Ray McGovern, raises another unsettling question. According to the former head of Qwest Communications, the NSA sought assistance with surveillance in February 2001, challenging the repeated claim that 9/11 “changed everything.” The question then, is “What Did Pelosi Know about NSA, and When Did She Know It?“
An Impeachment Groundswell
Despite the lack of cooperation from the Congress, the movement to impeach continues to gain traction in communities throughout the country.
According to AfterDowningStreet.org, impeachment resolutions have passed in Vermont’s state legislature (introduced in 11 other states), 26 statewide and national political committees, 19 state legislative districts, 91 cities, towns and counties, 54 local political groups/parties/jurisdictions, and several unions, seven ACLU chapters, with dozens more pending or in the works. Organizations well versed in constitutional law like the National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights have also called for impeachment.
In addition, indictment resolutions against the president and vice president have been introduced in three jurisdictions including Kennebunkport, Maine, summer home of the Bush family. In Brattleboro, Vermont, the votes were cast and the president and vice President may be wise not to tread on that town any time soon.
These actions stand in stark contrast with John Conyers’ assertion in his prepared speech at last year’s Take Back America conference that “Too many Americans, however, feel that Bush’s assault on civil liberties are not really their concern.”
Refusal by many members of Congress to support impeachment has little to do with whether or not they believe serious offenses have been committed as evidenced by letters to constituents.
Steve Rothman (D-NJ) is “outraged” over the president’s “overreaching intelligence gathering measures” and for “misleading the American people about the basis for going to war in Iraq.” He’s just not sure there is enough evidence. Perhaps John Conyers can lend him a copy of the “Constitution in Crisis.”
Representative Joe Sestak (D-PA) wrote “we have witnessed our government ignore the freedoms established in the Constitution on countless occasions and flaunted national security as justification.” While Sestak lays out numerous “egregious” abuses that “strike at the heart of our democracy,” he contends that congressional oversight will do the trick. One after another, members of Congress outline assaults on the Constitution by the president and vice president, but choose to ride out the next 10 months with little regard to the consequences.
Jerrold Nadler, chair of the Subcommittee on the Constitution has, in essence, altered the Constitution by ruling out impeachment as a viable tool for this and future administrations. By doing so, he opens the door to certain abuse of power. Impeachment, he says, “Doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because essentially the framers of the Constitution did not foresee political parties.” It’s a wonder George Mason, himself, hasn’t risen up to demand that Nadler step down from his chairmanship.
“No point,” said Mason, “is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued.”
Upholding the Oath
Conservative Bruce Fein, a constitutional lawyer who served as associate deputy attorney general under President Ronald Reagan had a message for the Democratic leadership in a radio interview with Rob Kall of OpEdNews.com. “It is quite clear,” Fein remarked, “that they will not move because they think collectively that it will not be advantageous politically for the Democratic Party. I have retorted, you have taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States which includes the impeachment clause.”
His voice rising, he stressed “That’s the only oath that you have taken. You have taken not an oath to support the Democratic Party. You’ve not taken an oath to support your political ambitions. The only unflagging obligation that you have is to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States. You are violating your oath when the reason for not going forward is not because they are not impeachable offenses, but you make a political calculation that it wouldn’t be healthy for your party – even if it would be healthy for the government of the United States and for the American people.”
When Kall commented that some worried that impeachment proceedings would hurt the candidates, Fein was even more blunt than before. “I think that is nauseating. When you think about all the risks that the founding fathers took, death, their fortunes, [ . . . ] and these people say ‘yea there are impeachable offenses, but if we have to choose between the Constitution which so many have died to preserve and our party’s gains at the next election so let’s throw the Constitution out the window’ – that is nauseating. That kind of attitude would have left us a colony of Great Britain and it’s not American.”
There are members of Congress who are undeterred by the Democratic leadership stance. In April 2007, Representative Dennis Kucinich introduced House Resolution 333 that, if passed, would impeach Vice President Dick Cheney. Each time an old offense was exposed or a new one committed, representatives would add their support.
In November 2007, when public pressure failed to move the resolution out of the House Judiciary where it languished, Kucinich introduced a privileged resolution to force a vote. After an afternoon of partisan politicking, the resolution landed back in the House Judiciary Committee with a new title, H. Res. 799. To date, there are 27 sponsors of H. Res. 799. Six of the 27 also serve on the House Judiciary Committee.
Moved by pressure from his constituents and a strong allegiance to the Constitution, Representative Robert Wexler (D-FL) rose up to lead the charge for impeachment hearings. In December, he authored an oped “A Case for Hearings” along with Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) also members of the House Judiciary Committee. In addition, he setup the website WexlerWantsHearings.com where he asked the public to lend their support. His long-term goal was 50,000 online signatures. Within the first 24 hours, 30,000 Americans had added their names. Currently, there are more than 233,000 supporters.
Wexler, along with 19 House members – five on the House Judiciary Committee – have written to chairman John Conyers urging support for impeachment hearings. In a New Year’s Eve post, The Nation named Robert Wexler, “The Most Valuable Congressman” stating, “If he keeps this up in 2008, Wexler could yet force the House to be what the founders intended: a check and balance on executive lawlessness.”
TBA 2008: The Republic Against the Rogue Presidency
Based on the reports from last week’s Take Back America conference, it appears that John Conyers has turned back the clock two years. It’s all about winning the elections. One blogger writes that the reason Conyers gave for not pursuing impeachment now is that “it would jeopardize the chance of a young, excellent man running for the White House,” referring to Senator Barack Obama. Sam Stein reports that “Conyers offered a strong suggestion that he intends to consider legal action against Bush and Company once they leave office.” Stein quotes Conyers as saying “We can win this thing and go get these guys after [they leave office].”
Conyers, like Senator Joe Biden (D-DE), offered that if Bush attacks Iran he should be impeached. It is disturbing to watch seasoned leaders, who have already witnessed this president wage a war on a country preemptively and on false pretenses, decide to “wait and see” rather than preventing more carngage by removing the rogue president for crimes already committed.
Activist David Swanson pulls no punches, “The congress that we elected in 2006 to end the occupation and hold Bush and Cheney accountable immediately decided to pretend to attempt to do its job for two years in hopes of winning more seats in 2008 by opposing the occupation and Bush and Cheney.”
“That this would mean hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths, two years off the clock on global warming, our nation and others in ever greater danger of attack, and the continued erosion of our rights – these things didn’t faze Reid or Pelosi,” charged the activist. “The pretenses they’ve put up have included hearings, letters, subpoenas, contempt citations, and bills recriminalizing already illegal and unconstitutional actions. They’ve also pretended to try to pass all sorts of other legislation, such as a children’s health care bill, knowing full well that they would be vetoed or signing statemented. It’s a two-year election campaign at taxpayer expense.”
Regarding impeachment and the elections, Swanson contends “Forcing John McCain to choose between the Constitution and the least popular president and vice president ever would be a gold mine immediately apparent to any entity capable of playing offense. The Democratic Party only plays defense.”
Conyers and Nixon
Congressman Conyers might well be served, and the nation in turn, by recalling his 1974 article published in The Black Scholar entitled “Why Nixon Should Have Been Impeached.”
The 45-year-old Conyers wrote, “In calling him to account, we also reestablish the proper parameters of presidential conduct. It is essential, therefore, that the record of our inquiry be complete so that no future president may infer that we have implicitly sanctioned what we have not explicitly condemned.”
He closed by remarking, “Impeachment is difficult and it is painful, but the courage to do what must be done is the price of remaining free.”
“When once a republic is corrupted, there is no possibility of remedying any of the growing evils but by removing the corruption and restoring its lost principles; every other correction is either useless or a new evil.” Thomas Jefferson