Saturday, April 21, 2007

Gonzalez' testimony: unitary executive theory in action

Hmm. Maybe Alberto Gonzales was actually brilliant yesterday. - By Dahlia Lithwick - Slate Magazine

The theory of the unitary executive is a radical vision of executive power in which the president is the big boss of the entire executive branch and has final say over everything that happens within it. At its core, the theory holds that Congress has very limited authority to divest the president of those powers. An expanded version of this theory was the legal predicate for the torture memo: "In light of the president's complete authority over the conduct of war, without a clear statement otherwise, criminal statutes are not read as infringing on the president's ultimate authority in these areas. … Congress may no more regulate the president's ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield."

One of the key issues in the early battles over unitary executive theory was the president's firing power. In its first incarnations, the notion of a unitary executive shored up the president's claim that he was entitled to fire executive officials—including the independent counsel and agency heads—as the mood took him.

If you watch the Gonzales hearing through this prism (and in this White House, even the bathroom windows look out through that prism), they were a triumph. For six impressive hours, the attorney general embodied the core principles that he is not beholden to Congress, that the Senate has no authority over him, and that he was only there as a favor to them in their funny little fact-finding mission...

Viewed in that light, Gonzales did exactly what he needed to do yesterday. He took a high, inside pitch to the head for the team (nobody wants to look like a dolt on national television) but hit a massive home run for the notion that at the end of the day, congressional oversight over the executive branch is little more than empty theatre.

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