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Wednesday, March 15, 2006
The Censure Issue
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 6:26 am

Via WaPo: A Senate Maverick Acts to Force an Issue

Feingold, 53, says he is convinced that Bush broke the law in ordering National Security Agency wiretaps of overseas telephone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens that involved people suspected of terrorist activities without first obtaining special court approval, and that his party must take a firm stand in protest.


Feingold’s resolution, formally introduced Monday, would censure Bush for approving an “illegal program to spy on American citizens on American soil.” The senator’s intention was to refer the matter to the Judiciary Committee for hearings and a vote before consideration by the full Senate. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) tried to force an immediate vote, to put the Democrats on the spot, but Democratic leaders objected, and for now the censure measure appears to be stalled.

I will say this about this affair: I would like to see a full investigation of the President’s action on this matter to determine if he did, in fact, violate the law. If he did, I would actually like to see a censure resolution voted out. If a President misbehaves, a President ought to be called on it by the Congress.

In other words, I would like to see a formal finding on what was done and a determination made as to its legality-and, further, as to the degree to which there was an honest issue of interpretation that led to the administration’s actions, and to what degree it was a deliberate ignoring of existing statute. In other words, were there gray areas, or were there stark areas of black and white, legally speaking? To be honest, my interpretation of the situation leans heavily towards the latter, while still seeing some of the former.

Of course, there has never been a full airing of this topic (not the operational aspects, but the legal/policy aspects) to my satisfaction.

The fact of the matter is, of course, that partisan and electoral politics so infuse this issue that true and an honest communication from the Congress to the President is not going to happen. Members of both parties (both in government and out) see this situation mostly from the point of view of how it effects 2006 and 2008, not from the POV of whether the President took proper actions.

Of course, I am of a mind that the censure option should be one that is more frequently on the table, insofar as the Congress ought to have a tool for the formal communication of serious displeasure with the President. However, this is a tool that clearly isn’t likley to come into vogue, as the article notes:

Censure, or official Senate condemnation, is a rare tool that has been used against only one president — Andrew Jackson, in March 1834. Jackson ignored the censure, and it was expunged three years later. Censuring is a symbolic act compared with impeachment — an indictment by the House permitted under the Constitution, which, if approved, leads to a Senate vote on acquittal or removal from office.

Really, President Clinton deserved a censure, rather than an attempt at removal from office-although I have often thought that the idea of impeachment without removal was a censure, after a fashion.

Of course, back to practical politics, a major problem with the censure idea is that it really would end being not a tool of inter-branch communication and criticism, but simply one of inter-party point-scoring. So, my musings regarding its use are in many ways a political fantasy predicated on the idea that Congress is really concerned about policy and proper governance and not political gain. Ah well, once can be an idealist in one’s own thoughts from time to time, I suppose.

Still, while I do think that Feingold is engaging in some pre-2008 politicking, I also think he is making a principled stand from his own point of view, and he also had to know that the resolution would fail (and, to be fair, he also knew it would get a lot of press).

To me it is unfortunate, albeit not surprising, that there hasn’t been a fuller investigation into the President’s actions on this NSA wiretap policy, as I think it is something that we all have a right to know more about, and that it is an issue that is serious in terms of how much power can a given president assert in such areas in the name of national security.

Filed under: US Politics, War on Terror, 2008 Campaign | |Send TrackBack


  1. Isn’t the brouhaha over wiretaps just another example of what happens when a political system gets too legalistic? Our system is in most ways superiosr to that of the British, but not, it seems to me, in this one. They’ve managed to preserve very vigorous freedom of speech even with things like the Official Secrets Act and real libel laws.

    Comment by Honza Prchal — Wednesday, March 15, 2006 @ 8:20 am

  2. In brief, as I am pressed for time, I would say that this is far more than an issue of being legalistic-it has to do with proper boundaries of power in our system of government-something I take very seriously.

    And no, I do not find the British system superior in any way in regards to the protection of rights and liberties. I would not want a situation in which whatever the legislature passed into law was, by default, constitutional-which is what one has in Britain.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Wednesday, March 15, 2006 @ 8:35 am

  3. Thank you for this post. I’ve been very frustrated for some time because what I’ve really wanted for some time was an investigation into the suspicious actions of this administration and I think after feeling repeatedly disappointed that nothing was getting done, I’ve felt like maybe if they jump the gun straight to “censure” or “impeachment” maybe we can get a little investigation. Why can’t we just have some investigation, just a little check and balance? Just to make sure that everyone is playing by the rules and playing nice?

    Comment by N. Mallory — Wednesday, March 15, 2006 @ 8:49 am

  4. Of course, it is not as if the British system (single party majority that is essentially an elective dictatorship between elections) or the USA system (fixed-term executive and a congress that may from time to time abdicate its check-and-balance function) are the only choices.

    While no system is without flaws, and each has flaws that the others lack, parliamentary systems but with minority or coalition cabinets avoid many of the flaws of both the UK and USA forms. This also happens to the most common form among the advanced democracies. No coincidence there.

    Regarding censure, nah. Impeachment or bust. There is no meaning to the concept of censure in our constitutional system.

    Comment by Matthew Shugart — Wednesday, March 15, 2006 @ 2:11 pm

  5. “Right to know”. Remind me where that is in the Constitution?

    People like you were also foaming at the mouth about Roosevelt during WWII. It’s funny how some just can’t face the fact that we’re at war with those who want nothing more than our total destruction.

    Comment by whatever — Wednesday, March 15, 2006 @ 9:48 pm

  6. It has something to do with a little something I like to call “democracy.”

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Wednesday, March 15, 2006 @ 10:04 pm

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