So now Sarah Palin has called for President Barack Obama’s impeachment. The response from the New York Times and other representatives of the “mainstream” media no doubt will be a combination of derision and studied indifference. And this should not surprise anyone. Unless an almost-literal smoking gun magically appears showing beyond a shadow of a doubt that President Obama personally ordered officials at the Internal Revenue Service to “get” conservative groups by auditing them to death, we will hear no serious talk of impeaching him, let alone actually removing him from office. This is not because Mr. Obama does not deserve to be impeached. The lawless conduct of his attorney general and his own increasing rule by decree through executive orders and waivers creating, amending, suspending and dispensing from legislation constitute an absolute refusal to see that the laws are faithfully executed. Unfortunately, these actions are (shameless and extreme) extensions of practices with their roots in Congress’ abdication of its legislative responsibilities going all the way back in the Franklin Roosevelt Administration. Mr. Obama’s transgressions make his an especially egregious case, but it is not a case our abdicating Congress is likely to prosecute.
Congressional impotence is perhaps best summed up in House Speaker John Boehner’s threatened lawsuit against the President for undermining the law and ruling by decree. Boehner appears to believe that the solution to our problems is to have Mommy, in the form of the Supreme Court, step in to stop the bullying. Mr. Obama’s response: the playground-worthy taunt “so sue me!” It is no help, of course, that Congress also has abdicated its responsibility to impeach judges who step too far over the lines of their own powers and responsibilities. Today’s Child Congress was intended to be the most important adult in our constitutional structure and can hardly expect to be protected in its self-chosen infancy once it has abdicated its proper role.
Mentions of impeachment occasionally occur, but only in marginal ways, through references to Richard Nixon having been forced to resign for transgressions some might deem less extreme than Mr. Obama’s. The jury remains out on that question, but not on the possibility of impeachment. Even with a smoking gun it is doubtful Congress would have the stomach for such a fight because the impeachment power has been all but eliminated through the atrophy born of disuse and the illegitimacy born of an ignorant public. Impeachment proceedings would only help Obama and his party as his supporters whipped up public opposition to those who would “undo the will of the people” as expressed in the last Presidential election. Republicans know this. Bill Clinton was impeached for obstructing justice (one of the most dangerous crimes a chief executive can commit in a free country) and perjury (an offense so dangerous to the rule of law as to be a capital offence throughout most of recorded history). It was well-known on Capitol Hill (where I worked at the time as a legislative aide) that he would not be removed from office. “We can’t overturn the will of the people” was not merely a refrain from Democrats, but also an accepted norm put in force by numerous Republican Senators.
The real story is not Mr. Obama’s contempt for the rule of law. The bigger story is Congress’ continuing tolerance of presidents who honestly believe it is their job to rule our nation, making law-like pronouncements on their own because the fact that they were elected supposedly gives them a “mandate from the people.” According to our Constitution, presidents are not elected to rule. They are elected to see that the laws are faithfully executed. And it has been all too long since that has happened.
The arrogance of this president, who continually declares and acts on his intention to rule unilaterally in areas where Congress refuses to bow to his will, certainly is breathtaking. Also breathtaking has been the arrogance of Mr. Obama’s minions, on display in various Congressional hearings. But then these last six catastrophic years followed on eight years of another of our nation’s worst presidents—George W. Bush—who also showed contempt for the rule of law in his many unilateral and often secret executive actions. Why has this been happening? Because presidents today do not fear Congress. They are frustrated by Congress, may even hate Congress, but they do not fear it, and feel no particular urgency about cooperating with its members, or even upholding and abiding by the statutes Congress passes and they themselves sign into law. Instead, vast, vague, programmatic “laws” like Obamacare merely serve as starting points to be shaped and reshaped by waivers and other regulatory rewrites based solely on the judgment, will, and desires of the president.
The blame for our current, lawless, state rests primarily with Congress itself. Ours is a Constitution clearly and unequivocally centered on a dominant legislative branch. The Framers of that Constitution sought to shore up the executive and judicial branches so that they might be able to check any potentially tyrannical conduct emanating from what they were convinced by nature constitutes the center of power in a republic—the legislature. But members of Congress long ago traded in power and responsibility (and the difficult work of actual policy and law making) for all-but-guaranteed re-election. And so Congress has been reduced to a kind of super-ombudsman, seeking to solve problems for (particularly well-heeled) constituents and grandstanding in committee hearings and the formulation of largely hortatory legislation handing over legislative power to the Presidential regulator-in-chief.
It should not be surprising, then, that Congress has abdicated its responsibility to impeach presidents they deem guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, and flagrant disregard for the laws as written, including through continued exercise of unconstitutional powers. We are developing into a mass democracy reminiscent of Napoleonic France, in which the people exercise only a power—so broad as to be meaningless—to say “yea” or “nay” to a ruler who with then act, largely unopposed, according to his arbitrary will. Until and unless Congress resumes its constitutional responsibilities, we should not expect our presidents—or judges—to do so either. We can expect only to be ruled increasingly by decree.
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