Russ Feingold is a U.S. senator from Wisconsin.
During the Watergate hearings, then-Senator Howard Baker, a Republican, showed tremendous courage, and a deep sense of Congress’s duty to hold President Nixon accountable, when he asked that now-famous question: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Baker was one of a handful of Republicans during the scandal who stood up to their party, and to the President. Today, as the President admits, even flaunts, his program to wiretap Americans on American soil without the warrants required by law, we need more courageous Republicans to stand up and check the President’s power grab.
When the President breaks the law, he must be held accountable, and that is why I have introduced a resolution to censure the President for his actions. Yet, as we face a President who thinks he is above the law, most Republicans are willing to cede enormous power to the executive branch. Their actions are not just short-sighted, they are a departure from one of the Republican Party’s defining goals: limiting government power.
Some Republicans are defending the President’s conduct as appropriate and arguing he should have free rein to continue his program, regardless of whether it is legal. Others seek to grant him expanded statutory powers so as to make his illegal conduct legal. But current law already allows a wiretap to be turned on immediately as long as the government goes to the court within 72 hours. The President has claimed an inherent authority to wiretap Americans on American soil without a warrant that he thinks allows him to break this law. So why would anyone think the President will comply with any new proposal? The constitutional system of separation of powers demands that we check a President who recklessly grabs for power and ignores the rule of law, not reward him—particularly when the law he breaks is designed to protect innocent Americans from intrusive government powers.
As many Republicans focus on defending the President, they are losing sight of what ceding these powers to the President now will mean for their own party down the road. Those expansive powers will rest with whoever sits in the Oval Office. Republicans who argue today that the President has the power to ignore a law passed by Congress are relinquishing authority not just to this Republican President, but to future presidents of any party. They are helping to render future members of their own party powerless to check an executive who claims expansive powers under the Constitution or a future Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution.
The Republican effort to defend the President works against the party in the long run, and it also goes against the party’s longstanding rhetoric about checking government power and strengthening individual freedoms. It’s hardly in keeping with those values to allow Americans’ communications to be monitored without a warrant, or to concentrate power in one branch of government. One of the best ways to limit government power is to ensure that each branch provides a check on the other two, but most Republicans in Congress today aren’t checking the President’s power or defending the judicial branch’s right to do so—they are giving him a blank check to ignore the rule of law.
A party that prides itself on limiting government, and supporting individual freedom and the rule of law, should think twice before it allows any President to ignore the laws that Congress passes. By supporting the President now, Republicans are making it tougher for members of their own party to challenge the power of future presidents and departing from their own values in the process. That’s a short-sighted strategy that won’t serve either party, or the nation, in the long run. What would serve the nation, and support the rule of law, is for a few courageous Republicans to follow the example set during the Watergate scandal by standing up to a President of their own party, asking tough questions, and holding the President accountable for his abuse of power.