Checks and balances are not working


It was 40 years ago. The scandal was called Watergate. The president was Richard Nixon. He had delighted in some dirty political tricks, was abusing power left and right, and had even helped cover up a crime, a break-in by political operatives at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

Then, wham, the press was on his case, his own party was on his case, Congress was on his case and the courts were on his case. Nixon resigned.

“The system worked,” observers said over and over again, reflecting pride that constitutional safeguards had thwarted these machinations as all sides stood up for what’s right.

Now we’re in another era. Barack Obama is president, and no, he is not engaged in Nixonian criminality, but he is rewriting laws without congressional approval, otherwise kicking the Constitution in the teeth on a regular basis and merrily getting away with it.

The system is not working.

Oh, ho-hum, say many, especially liberals who contend George W. Bush was worse, see Obama as justified because of Republican opponents who won’t give him what he wants or else just look in the other direction. There’s one liberal, however, who still cares about rule of law, who points to the obvious ways Obama is scarily, emphatically, blatantly abridging it far more than Bush and who frets about the hit on separation of powers between the executive, Congress and the judiciary.

“What also alarms me, however, is that the two other branches appear not just simply passive, but inert in the face of this concentration of authority,” said this liberal, Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, when he was testifying before the House Judiciary Committee this past February.

“The fact that I happen to think the president is right on many of these policies does not alter the fact that I believe the means … is wrong, and that this can be a dangerous change in our system. And our system is changing in a very fundamental way. And it’s changing without a whimper of regret or opposition.”

Turley is not bashful in his facts — pointing, for instance, to administration surveillance of the press; the unilateral rewriting of parts of immigration, health-care, education and other laws; questionable regulatory enthusiasms; and the illegal shifting of money from one government fund to another.

Neither is he bashful in his rhetoric as he worries about “a usurpation of authority unprecedented in this country,” or refers to the “land of the sorta, kinda free” or says we are at a “constitutional tipping point” that could bring us “an uber presidency unchecked by the other two branches.”

So where are these branches, anyway? True, the Republicans in the House are trying out some ideas such as a bill that could speed up action on civil lawsuits against Obama, but even assuming no veto by the president, the Democratic Senate would not pass it any more than it will do much of anything to curb this president.

And the courts?

“For the last two decades, federal courts have been engaged in a policy of avoidance,” said Turley in an interview on Fox News. The judicial theory, he said, is to leave it up to Congress when the executive branch goes too far, but as we’ve seen, that’s like leaving it up to ghosts in an attic.

Listen, folks, despite the yelps of the uncaring, intellectually mystified branch of liberals, this is not about impeachment or a conservative agenda or anything like that. It is about preserving a constitutional order meant to protect all of us. And do the Democrats not get it that if this precedent stands, a Republican president could also indulge his autocratic impulses someday?

Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune. Readers may send him email at

©2014 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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