William Kristol and Gary Schmitt have a column
in today's Washington Post
that advances a simple premise: the president "uniquely swears an oath -- prescribed in the Constitution -- to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution." While Congress legislates for the 'in general', the president is the one who must face particular
crises, ones whose dimensions, dangers and particularities legislators could not have foreseen. This mix of responsibility and authority gives the president the unique and awesome power to set aside Congress's laws in the over-riding interest of securing the nation.
This is a doctrine fraught with danger in a constitutional republic. But it is not a new theory and it is not without some merit.
A little more than a year ago, I discussed
this in a post about an earlier Pentagon report which argued that the power to set aside laws is "inherent in the president." That principle is simply not reconcilable with the principles of our republic. But no less a man than Thomas Jefferson considered a possible exception ...
If memory serves, Thomas Jefferson -- when he was later thinking over the implications of his arguably unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase (and again this is from memory -- so perhaps someone can check for me) -- argued that the president might find himself in a position in which he might have the right or even the duty to disregard the law or some stricture of the constitution in the higher interests of the Republic.
Jefferson's argument, however, wasn't that the president had the prerogative to set aside the law. It was that the president might find himself in a position of extremity in which there was simply no time to canvass the people or a situation in which there was no practicable way to bring the relevant information before them. In such a case the president might have an extra-constitutional right (if there can be such a thing) or even an obligation to act in what he understands to be the best interests of the Republic.
The clearest instance of this would be a case where the president faced a choice between letting the Republic be destroyed or violating one of its laws.
But that wasn't the end of his point. Having taken such a step, it would then be the obligation of the president to throw himself on the mercy of the public, letting them know the full scope of the facts and circumstances he had faced and leave it to them -- or rather their representatives or the courts -- to impeach him or indict those who had taken it upon themselves to act outside the law.
As I recall Jefferson's argument there was never any thought that the president had the power to prevent future prosecutions of himself or those acting at his behest. Indeed, such a follow-on claim would explode whatever sense there is in Jefferson's argument.
If you see the logic of Jefferson's argument it is not that the president is above the law or that he can set aside laws, it is that the president may have a moral authority or obligation to break the law in the interests of the Republic itself -- subject to submitting himself for punishment for breaking its laws, even in its own defense. Jefferson's argument was very much one of executive self-sacrifice rather than prerogative.
This is where Kristol and Schmitt's hypothesizing fails republican muster. The president may well find himself or herself in situations that the Congress could not have anticipated or ones where the well-being of the country requires the president to ignore the letter of the law. (Only in the most extreme cases is this even conceivable -- but at least for the sake of conversation let's posit the possibility.) But the factor here is not the president's unique ability to judge these matters; the issue is time and urgency. Certainly, at the first practicable moment the president has to take the matter before the appropriate members of Congress, explain himself, request that the relevant laws be revised and open himself up to the possibility of real accountability for his actions.
And yet it seems pretty clear that this is not what the president did. The White House gave briefings to four or six members of Congress and then prevented them from discussing the matter either with colleagues or with staff. That makes the consultation pretty close to meaningless.
Kristol and Schmitt conclude by writing ...
This is not an argument for an unfettered executive prerogative. Under our system of separated powers, Congress has the right and the ability to judge whether President Bush has in fact used his executive discretion soundly, and to hold him responsible if he hasn't. But to engage in demagogic rhetoric about "imperial" presidents and "monarchic" pretensions, with no evidence that the president has abused his discretion, is foolish and irresponsible.
But this makes no sense. The Congress can't hold the president accountable or legislate on these matters for the future if they're never informed of what the president is doing. That's obvious. There may be some situations Congress can't have foreseen in advance; but Kristol and Schmitt are talking about a situation the president has prevented the Congress from considering even after the fact
That's the end of constitutional government. No individual is absolute in a democratic republic. But this principle allows the president to make himself just that.