The Grossest Absurdities

“Where men are the most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken, and have there given reins to passion, without that proper deliberation and suspense, which can alone secure them from the grossest absurdities.”

These words were written more than 250 years ago by the Scottish philosopher and essayist, David Hume. They still ring true today, as we daily bear witness to “the grossest absurdities� of men like Bush, Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld, et al., who are “sure and arrogant� to a fault. What prompts this reflection is an article by Charlie Savage in yesterday’s Boston Globe entitled “Bush shuns Patriot Act requirement� (excerpt below). Though I can no longer profess surprise at anything the President or his minions say and do, I nonetheless am disturbed by what Savage reports and what it means to our frail democracy:

When President Bush signed the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act this month, he included an addendum saying that he did not feel obliged to obey requirements that he inform Congress about how the FBI was using the act’s expanded police powers.

The bill contained several oversight provisions intended to make sure the FBI did not abuse the special terrorism-related powers to search homes and secretly seize papers. The provisions require Justice Department officials to keep closer track of how often the FBI uses the new powers and in what type of situations. Under the law, the administration would have to provide the information to Congress by certain dates.

Bush signed the bill with fanfare at a White House ceremony March 9, calling it “a piece of legislation that’s vital to win the war on terror and to protect the American people.” But after the reporters and guests had left, the White House quietly issued a “signing statement,” an official document in which a president lays out his interpretation of a new law.

In the statement, Bush said that he did not consider himself bound to tell Congress how the Patriot Act powers were being used and that, despite the law’s requirements, he could withhold the information if he decided that disclosure would “impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative process of the executive, or the performance of the executive’s constitutional duties.”

Bush wrote: “The executive branch shall construe the provisions . . . that call for furnishing information to entities outside the executive branch . . . in a manner consistent with the president’s constitutional authority to supervise the unitary executive branch and to withhold information . . . ”

The statement represented the latest in a string of high-profile instances in which Bush has cited his constitutional authority to bypass a law….

Bush’s expansive claims of the power to bypass laws have provoked increased grumbling in Congress. Members of both parties have pointed out that the Constitution gives the legislative branch the power to write the laws and the executive branch the duty to “faithfully execute” them….

Bush’s signing statement on the USA Patriot Act nearly went unnoticed.

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, inserted a statement into the record of the Senate Judiciary Committee objecting to Bush’s interpretation of the Patriot Act, but neither the signing statement nor Leahy’s objection received coverage from in the mainstream news media, Leahy’s office said.

Yesterday, Leahy said Bush’s assertion that he could ignore the new provisions of the Patriot Act — provisions that were the subject of intense negotiations in Congress — represented “nothing short of a radical effort to manipulate the constitutional separation of powers and evade accountability and responsibility for following the law.” (emphasis added)

“The president’s signing statements are not the law, and Congress should not allow them to be the last word,” Leahy said in a prepared statement. “The president’s constitutional duty is to faithfully execute the laws as written by the Congress, not cherry-pick the laws he decides he wants to follow. It is our duty to ensure, by means of congressional oversight, that he does so.”

Leahy, of course, is correct, but the sad and dangerous reality is that—Congressional grumbling aside—such oversight is not forthcoming, as partisan politics and special interests continue to lame the legislative branch. And thus our democracy falls prey to “the grossest absurditiesâ€? of corrupt and arrogant men. Unless…

We take action and take to heart the words of our founding fathers, who some 25 years after David Hume, wrote a modest document known as the Declaration of Independence. I encourage you to read it anew (here) and remind yourself of the “unalienable rights� to which we are all entitled and what actions are not only possible but necessary when faced with “a long train of abuses and usurpations� by tyrants of great power and arrogance.


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