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U.S.: White House-Congress Dispute Highlights Presidential Power Issue

  • Andrew Tully

Many observers say the U.S. Congress has become increasingly influential in government policy-making in recent years -- at the expense of the presidency. And they note that President George W. Bush appears to be making an effort to restore some of the powers of his office. This is currently exemplified in a dispute between the White House and Congress over an investigation into the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Washington, 22 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The White House is facing a new dispute with Congress over whether to submit to a special committee the text of a briefing on Al-Qaeda that President George W. Bush received a month before the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Bush has blamed Al-Qaeda -- run by Osama bin Laden -- for the attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Congress has set up a special committee, made up of members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, to determine how to prevent a recurrence.

Part of that goal is to establish whether there is anything the U.S. government could have done -- and should have done -- to prevent the September attacks in the first place.

Responding to a news story broadcast last week, the White House confirmed that during his daily intelligence briefing on 6 August, Bush was told that Al-Qaeda was interested in hijacking American aircraft.

At first, Washington was caught up in what appeared to be a partisan dispute over whether, on the one hand, the Bush administration may have ignored a warning that could have prevented the attacks, and whether, on the other, Bush's critics may somehow be acting unpatriotically in a time of war. That disagreement quickly subsided, but the 6 August briefing remains an issue of contention between the White House and Congress.

Some members of Congress say releasing the text of the briefing is essential to helping the special investigative committee reach meaningful conclusions. These members say the Bush White House has become overly secretive when dealing with legislators.

But Vice President Richard Cheney, speaking for the administration on 19 May, said that to surrender the memorandum itself, or a copy, would be irresponsible because it includes highly secret sources and methods of gaining sensitive intelligence.

Cheney said it would be better if Congress settled for what he called a "conversation" about the briefing with senior administration officials, rather than open hearings in which every word of the memorandum might be made publicly available. The vice president says that to his knowledge, such restricted material has never before been submitted to Congress.

This is not the first time the Bush White House clashed with Congress over the release of information. The administration already has refused Capitol Hill's demands for details of Cheney's meetings with oil company officials on revising the nation's energy policy, what contacts administration officials may have had with the now-collapsed energy company Enron, and whether Tom Ridge, the president's coordinator on homeland security, should testify before Congress about his work.

Some observers say the Bush administration is trying to reclaim some of the presidential authority that has been lost in the past three decades, particularly since Richard Nixon was forced to resign the presidency in 1974 because of the Watergate scandal. Since then, Congress has asserted increased oversight authority.

The American government is divided into three branches -- the executive branch, which is controlled by the president; the legislative branch, or Congress; and the judicial branch, or the federal court system. Under the U.S. Constitution, these branches are separate, and none is subordinate to another.

At the same time, however, there is an important tension among the three branches in an effort to ensure stability. There are some actions that the president, as chief executive, can take without consulting Congress. But Congress has oversight authority to prevent the president from overstepping his powers.

This leads to an important tension in the American governmental system, according to Roger Pilon, the chairman of the Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, an independent policy research center in Washington. Pilon told RFE/RL that this tension is not limited to the executive and legislative branches, which he calls the "political branches" of government. "This tension is inescapable in our system. It's one that, at the end of the day, calls for judgment on both sides, and for limited role of the court [system] in overseeing that."

Matthew Spaulding agrees. He studies government and constitutional issues at the Heritage Foundation, another Washington policy institute. In an interview with RFE/RL, he concedes the tension between the two political branches can be driven less by statesmanship and more by politics, which can sometimes complicate governance. "However, we have to remember that according to the original construction of the constitution, that was the intention; The executive branch and Congress were to compete back and forth, they were to check each other. Congress was to challenge the executive branch, the executive branch was meant to challenge the legislative branch, and this was understood to be a good thing."

While Spaulding welcomes this tension, Larry Sabato -- a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville -- says the power of the presidency has grown and diminished over the years, depending on the character of a given president and a given Congress.

And Sabato says he is not certain that the executive branch has in recent decades lost any authority that it should have kept. In fact, he says he is not certain that the presidency and Congress should be perceived as equal. "A close reading of the constitution requires that the Congress be the first branch of government, that it limit the presidency in many different ways."

Sabato says he believes the authors of the constitution thought the American people would be better served if Congress could continually exert its prerogative to limit the power of the president.