Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Imperial Vice Presidency

David Kurtz wonders about the real role of Darth Cheney, the so-called Vice President.

In a piece headlined "Vice President's Shadow Hangs Over Trial," the WaPo has a nice synopsis of Cheney's involvement in the Plame matter.

Actually, you could headline just about every story that way these days: "Vice President's Shadow Hangs Over _________."

Fill in the blank: Iraq. Iran. Global warming. Renditions. Domestic surveillance.

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.

For a long time, talk of Cheney's unprecedented power carried with it a whiff of left-wing radicalism and Oliver Stone conspiracies. But in the last year, several serious journalistic efforts have explored the Cheney vice presidency. Robert Kuttner surveyed the field in his essay, "See Dick Run (the Country)," for The American Prospect. While it is axiomatic that Cheney is the power behind throne, what remains missing, as Kuttner pointed out, is the sort of relentless, day-to-day media coverage of Cheney that befits his claims to constitutional power:

If Cheney were the actual president, not just the de facto one, he simply could not govern with the same set of policies and approval ratings of 20 percent. The media focuses relentless attention on the president, on the premise that he is actually the chief executive. But for all intents and purposes, Cheney is chief, and Bush is more in the ceremonial role of the queen of England.

Yet the press buys the pretense of Bush being "the decider," and relentlessly covers Bush -- meeting with world leaders, cutting brush, holding press conferences, while Cheney works in secret, largely undisturbed. So let's take half the members of the overblown White House press corps, which has almost nothing to do anyway, and send them over to Cheney Boot Camp for Reporters. They might learn how to be journalists again, and we might learn who is running the government.

The other thing missing has been congressional oversight. Since Kuttner penned his essay, Democrats have gained control of Congress. A hearing on the constitutional role of the vice president might be an excellent place to start. From all indications, Cheney has amassed considerable power due to his experience and savvy vis-a-vis the President's relative lack thereof. But that is a separate issue from the constitutional role of the OVP, and whether, or in what ways, various statutory regimens, particularly in the national security arena, apply to the OVP.

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.

But whether it's the legal or political aspect of Cheney's role, it all comes down to the same thing: we just don't know.

It's about time we find out.

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