Sunday, February 04, 2007

Is the VP the Fourth Branch?

Many law librarians and research and writing instructors have lamented the lack of comprehension by first-year law students of the basics of high school civics classes and the three co-equal branches of government--legislative, executive, and judicial. Recent decades--certainly as far back as Nixon's claims that "if the president does it, it's legal" and on through the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra scandals (and, to be fair, repeated Democratic and Republican calls for a line-item veto) through Bush's novel use of presidential signing statements to make legislation say the opposite of what it was meant to say--may have left many of us understandably muddled about the relations among the three branches. But at least I've always assumed that the Office of the Vice President was firmly located in, and subservient to, the President. Until I read this by Joshua Micah Marshall:

I will confess to having been extremely skeptical in the early years of the Bush Presidency that Cheney was really running the show. It seemed too facile an explanation for what I was convinced was a far more complicated situation. Until the 9/11 Commission report came out.

Even the watered-down version of events in the Commission's report made it absolutely clear that Cheney, ensconced in the White House bunker on the morning of the attacks, had issued shootdown orders outside of the chain of command and then conspired with the President to conceal this fact from the Commission.

Since then, I've gone from being open to the idea of an Imperial Vice Presidency to being convinced that historians will debate whether something approaching a Cheney-led coup d'etat has occurred, in which some of the powers of the Executive were extra-constitutionally usurped by the Office of the Vice President.

Last week, in trying to break the lock on who actually works in the OVP--which the Vice President refuses to reveal--the guys at Muckraker stumbled across this entry from a government directory known as the "Plum Book":

The Vice Presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch, but is attached by the Constitution to the latter. The Vice Presidency performs functions in both the legislative branch (see article I, section 3 of the Constitution) and in the executive branch (see article II, and amendments XII and XXV, of the Constitution, and section 106 of title 3 of the United States Code).

It appears that Cheney's office submitted this entry in lieu of a list of its employees, as federal agencies must do. It sounds like something Cheney's current chief of staff, David Addington, might have written. Cheney and Addington have been the among the most powerful proponents of the theory of a "unitary executive," but there are indications that they have also advanced, though less publicly, a theory of a constitutionally distinct and independent vice presidency....

By custom and tradition, the Vice President's role had been circumscribed by how little express power and authority the Constitution granted the position. Hence, all the jokes over the years about the vice presidency. But in a move that is decidedly anti-conservative, in the conventional sense, Cheney moved to fill the void. I fear that what we will eventually find are structural flaws that were deliberately exploited by the OVP, which in turn further undermined constitutional and statutory structures.

Still, I can't help but be fascinated by the more pedestrian issue of how Cheney continues to assert himself so vigorously without running up against the ego of a cocksure President. How is it that Bush, who is so caught up in macho public demonstrations of his own personal strength and courage, can tolerate a shadow presidency within his own White House? What kind of spell has Cheney cast that allows Bush to continue to believe he is the decider? You can imagine all sorts of dysfunctional psychological dramas playing out behind the scenes.

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

Dear Jim,
I am so angry, my blood pressure must have spiked! I don't think there's a lot of mystery about the personalities involved. When you consider that W has been on a "need to know" basis and that they didn't bother to interrupt his bicycle ride, etc., it explains the whole situation. W is the front man, the guy hapless American voters thought they might enjoy having a beer with. But he does not like to be challenged with difficult or unpleasant situations. So, his Dad's friend Cheney is in place to make his presidency care- free! I think that explains it very well.