House Panel Scrutinizes 'Imperial Presidency'
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Today on Capitol Hill, a House committee held a hearing about what it called the Imperial Presidency. The hearing was a forum for proponents of the idea that the Bush administration has abused its power, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Today's hearing comes amid a constitutional showdown between the White House and the Democratic Congress. Early on, judiciary committee chairman, John Conyers, acknowledged it's no secret he thinks the Bush administration has overstepped its authority.
Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, House Judiciary Committee): As one who was included on President Nixon's enemies list, I'm all too familiar with the specter of an unchecked executive branch. And the risks to our citizens' rights are even graver today as the war of terror has no specific endpoint.
ELLIOTT: While Conyers made clear this was not an impeachment hearing, the subject repeatedly turned to the question of whether the administration was guilty of, quote, "high crimes and misdemeanors." Florida Democrat Robert Wexler had this laundry list of charges.
Representative ROBERT WEXLER (Democrat, Florida): Deliberately lying to Congress and the American people and manipulating intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, ordering the illegal use of torture, firing U.S. attorneys for political purposes, denying the legitimate constitutional powers of congressional oversight by blatantly ignoring subpoenas, among countless other crimes.
ELLIOTT: Democratic leaders have said impeachment is not on the table, a position that has frustrated some in the party. So, today's hearing was an opportunity for impeachment advocates - including Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich - to present their arguments in a formal setting. That had Republicans wondering, what was the point in the final six months of the Bush presidency? Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, the top Republican on the judiciary committee, called it a relentless effort to malign an outgoing administration.
Representative LAMAR SMITH (Republican, Texas): This week, it seems that we are hosting an anger management class. Nothing is going to come out of this hearing with regard to impeachment of the president. I know it, the media knows it, and the speaker knows it.
ELLIOTT: Nonetheless, most of the witnesses made the case for impeachment within the committee's strict etiquette rules that prohibited anyone from outright calling the president a liar. First up to the challenge was the former presidential candidate Kucinich, who has introduced impeachment articles against President Bush for the war in Iraq.
Representative DENNIS KUCINICH (Democrat, Ohio): The war was totally unnecessary, unprovoked and unjustified. The question for Congress is this: What responsibility does the president and members of his administration have for that unnecessary, unprovoked and unjustified war?
ELLIOTT: Witnesses had ideas ranging from legislation to restore the balance of power all the way to prosecuting the president for murder.
Professor JEREMY RABKIN (Law, George Mason University): I'm really astonished at the mood in this room. I mean, the tone of these deliberations, I think it's slightly demented.
ELLIOTT: George Mason University law professor Jeremy Rabkin was one of two witnesses called by the Republican minority.
Prof. RABKIN: You should all remind yourselves that the rest of the country is not necessarily in the same bubble in which people think it is reasonable to describe the president as if he were Caligula.
ELLIOTT: Indiana Republican Mike Pence worried the hearing was a step toward the criminalization of American politics. It's not clear what the judiciary panel will do at today's testimony. Some members called for an independent inquiry similar to the 9/11 Commission.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.