The Unitary Executive

In tonight’s debate, Palin said that she would like to expand the powers of the VP beyond what Cheney has done. (Lord help us all!) This theory is known as the unitary executive theory. Under this theory, the president’s authority when acting as commander-in-chief or when making foreign policy cannot be reviewed by the judiciary or checked by Congress.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have drawn heavily on this idea during their time in office to abandon the rule of law. Bush frequently and continually stresses his role as commander-in-chief in the war on terror. When added to the idea that we have entered a perpetual state of war (as a war on terror is so vague that it could, foreseeably, last forever), the implications of this theory stretch as far into the future as we can imagine.

Bush and Cheney have co-opted the judicial branch by appointing judges (Alito and Roberts) who are largely deferential to the executive branch’s exercise of power and by their support of assaults on the independence of the third branch.

Bush has emasculated the legislative branch by issuing over 1000 “signing statements” (signed during the signing of a bill into law) that basically say he will not uphold or abide by certain parts of the law that he finds unacceptable. Signing statements have served primarily a ceremonial function throughout US history. They often extol the virtues of the legislation and thank those figures responsible for the enactment. Sometimes they include passages in which the president raises constitutional concerns with some provisions of the new law. What presidents have always avoided is delineating those provisions that the president simply disagrees with and announcing the president will not comply with them. Obviously, such a device would be unconstitutional on its face.

But this is exactly what Bush has done. He has signed over 1000 signing statements during his time in office – more than any other president combined. Bill Clinton only signed 140 signing statements, and he was working with an adversarial, Republican controlled Congress for the majority of his presidency. Bush worked with a docile and supportive Congress for his first six years in office.

An example of Bush’s disdain for the rule of law: After the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, several Republican senators sponsored a bill that outlawed torture. It passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Bush could’ve vetoed the law, but Congress almost certainly would’ve overridden the veto. Instead, he signed it into law but announced that he did not, and would not, have to abide by it. No wonder he has only vetoed one bill during his time in office. Why bother when you can just pick and choose which parts of the law you’ll abide by and those you won’t?

These disturbing actions by the current administration pose serious threats to our democracy and the rule of law. In the debate tonight, we heard Joe Biden describe Cheney’s expansion of the VP’s powers as exerting the authority of a unitary executive. He described this expansion as extremely dangerous and said that it would stop (and, implicity, that the rule of law would be restored) in an Obama-Biden administration. Palin, on the other hand, said she applauded the way Cheney has expanded the role of the VP and would work to further expand the role of the VP in a McCain-Palin administration. This is completely blasphemous to everything our founders worked for when writing our constitution and forming our government, and it cannot be allowed to continue.

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One Response

  1. […] at Bunk in the West said Palin’s statement constitutes an endorsement of the unitary executive theory, about which she […]

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