Sunday, December 31, 2006

Past Imperfect, Future Tense: the Question of "Checks and Balances"

"There is a kind of conventional 'wisdom' slightly to the left of center which analyzes the United States this way: we have political democracy, but not economic democracy. It points to the 'democratic' institutions: the three branches of government and the 'checks and balances' which are presumed to prevent a monopoly of power by any one branch; the voting process for the president and Congress, especially now that women and black people have the right to vote; the Bill of Rights.

"What this viewpoint ignores is the economic basis of politics, the fact that if the economy is dominated by corporate wealth, that wealth will inevitably corrupt the political process, irrespective of the fact that on paper the institutions appear to be democratic.

"The nation’s history shows this from the start. The much-praised 'democracy' created by the Constitution after the Revolutionary War was a showpiece created by the Founding Fathers in response to popular participation in the Revolution, and rebellions in the various states afterward. In fact, the new nation was dominated by slaveholders, bondholders, merchants, and land speculators, who established a central government strong enough to put down popular protest and to serve the interests of the wealthy.

"What was established at that early point in the nation’s history continued to be true for the next two centuries and more. Any honest look at national policy would conclude that, except for certain moments when massive social movements have forced reforms (the Thirties, the Sixties), the government has legislated as the Founding Fathers did, in the interests of the wealthy classes.

"Furthermore, whatever pretense there has been for 'checks and balances' among the three branches of government evaporates when it comes to foreign policy. The expansion of the empire, first across the continent, and then across the world, has come as a result of military interventions, commanded by the president, with Congress abjectly going along, and the Supreme Court silent in the face of clear violations of the Constitution."

Howard Zinn, from the Introduction to "Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney"

The notion that the solution to the problem of Bush/Cheney and the GOP's dominance and dictatorial ways lies in the supposed restoration of a better past, a rosier past, a "past perfect" or the like disregards the ineluctable fact that this past has always been past imperfect. As Zinn points out in the excerpt above, the whole notion of "checks and balances," the equal standing between the three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial), has been from the start more fiction than reality. Consider, for example, the conduct of foreign policy and the invasion of Iraq under Bush/Cheney in particular. The Democrats knew or should have known that the justifications for invading Iraq were all smoke and mirrors. If they didn't they're just too stupid and credulous to be leaders. If they did realize these were lies but voted to authorize the invasion anyway, then they're gutless and have the blood on their hands of the 650,000 plus Iraqis who have died due to our immoral and illegal invasion and that of the 3,000 American service people sent to kill and die in this monstrous war.

Many people like ex-weapons inspector Scott Ritter and other experts, as well as anyone who went to the trouble of thinking skeptically about the stories emanating from the White House and from Chalabi (obligingly passed along by people like the NY Times' Judith Miller) recognized immediately that the stories about WMD were false, that the linkages between Hussein and al-Qaeda were obviously concocted and that the intelligence was being manipulated to fit the policy. I and many other people were actively involved in exposing these lies prior to the invasion. So the summation of this period by talking heads in the media and public officials that "we were all fooled" and that "everyone" believed that Iraq had WMD is utterly ridiculous.

Now comes the Democrats again talking about "reconciliation" and "uniting" and making America great again. Think about what these Democrats did when the war was being considered. Think about what the platform of Kerry and Edwards was in 2004: they planned to carry out the Iraq war more "competently" than Bush/Cheney, not to withdraw immediately. Consider what the alleged "uniter" Barack Obama told the Chicago Tribune in 2004 about Iran: "[T]he big question is going to be, if Iran is resistant to these pressures [to stop its nuclear program], including economic sanctions, which I hope will be imposed if they do not cooperate, at what point…if any, are we going to take military action?”

Think carefully about what the Democrats did when they had the chance to filibuster - they had the numbers, let alone the moral obligation - the torture bill (the Military Commissions Act of 2006) that also stripped anyone of habeas corpus rights who at the whim of the president is designated as someone who has "materially contributed to hostilities against the United States." They let the bill pass without a real fight.

Some Democrats such as Sen. Patrick Leahy and the GOP's Arlen Spector are now talking about possibly repealing parts of the MCA in the new Congress, but they aren't talking about getting rid of it entirely, which is what they ought to be doing. Torture is torture. What part of torture do people not understand? Not even the Nazis declared to the whole world that they were going to legalize and practice ongoing torture.

Think too about what the Democrats (and the corporate media) have done and said about the little known bill that Bush also signed the same day he signed the MCA: the John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007. This act essentially abrogates the Posse Comitatus Act (which prohibits the use of military forces in domestic affairs). The Warner Act gives the President the power to take control of the National Guard over the objections of the state governors to enforce a "public emergency" (i.e., martial law) declared by the President. Go to the White House's webpage and read Bush's signing statement on this bill. It reads in part:

"The executive branch shall construe sections 914 and 1512 of the Act, which purport to make consultation with specified Members of Congress a precondition to the execution of the law, as calling for but not mandating such consultation, as is consistent with the Constitution's provisions concerning the separate powers of the Congress to legislate and the President to execute the laws.

"A number of provisions in the Act call for the executive branch to furnish information to the Congress or other entities on various subjects ... The executive branch shall construe such provisions in a manner consistent with the President's constitutional authority to withhold information the disclosure of which could impair foreign relations, the national security, the deliberative processes of the Executive, or the performance of the Executive's constitutional duties.


"The executive branch shall construe section 1211, which purports to require the executive branch to undertake certain consultations with foreign governments and follow certain steps in formulating and executing U.S. foreign policy, in a manner consistent with the President's constitutional authorities to conduct the Nation's foreign affairs and to supervise the unitary executive branch.

"As is consistent with the principle of statutory construction of giving effect to each of two statutes addressing the same subject whenever they can co-exist, the executive branch shall construe section 130d of title 10, as amended by section 1405 of the Act, which provides further protection against disclosure of certain homeland security information in certain circumstances, as in addition to, and not in derogation of, the broader protection against disclosure of information afforded by section 892 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and other law protecting broadly against disclosure of such information."

In other words, Congress passed a law that enables martial law, abrogates Posse Comitatus, gives to the President unprecedented powers to exercise emergency powers, and just to safeguard the Republic (so good of them to think of that) they include sections requiring the President to consult with a few handpicked Congresspeople before and while he's doing this. And what does Bush turn around and say? I reserve the right not to consult Congress and not to disclose what I'm doing and why. There is a word for this: dictatorship.

How many Americans know about this hoary piece of legislation? How many Americans have even HEARD of the Warner Act? How many Democrats screamed bloody murder about this Act and which ones of them are talking now about repealing it?

The future is tense because the future is up for grabs and the dangers we collectively confront are immense. We cannot move forward in a way that will really uproot and reverse the horrid direction that this regime has been taking us down without realizing deeply that the solution doesn't lie in romanticizing and thereby falsifying the past. Checks and balances between the branches of government or checks and balances between the two major parties is not going to stop this juggernaut. Only the people can do that and only the people relying on ourselves first and foremost and transforming the whole political dynamic and atmosphere in this country through mass popular action can do this.

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