Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Bush and my cynicism with the power of law

A little story for you: Back, many moons ago, in my first year of university, I was taking Intro to Political Science, where we learned that, according to Max Weber, there are three types of authority that governments rest on: Charismatic, Traditional, and Rational-legal. Weber's distinctions left me unimpressed. I made the argument to my professor that the distinction between "traditional" and "rational-legal" modes of authority sounded awfully artificial to me, especially when you consider the way we actually act in relation to the law. Specifically, Canadians and Americans tend to refer to their respective constitutions as holy writ, or as Bill Maher has said about the Bill of Rights: "They're called amendments, not commandments!"

Let me put it another way: It is, I believe, a misunderstanding to think there's a bright line separating Weber's "traditional" modes of authority (patriarchy, monarchy, feudalism) and a legal-rational framework. Any study of French feudalism or patriarchies from primary societies quickly discovers that there are extremely substantive legal frameworks woven in each. (Though Weber can be forgiven for being ignorant of historical and anthropological research that would occur after his death.) Bluntly put, said I to my professor, there's really not that much separating our "rational-legal" world from the "traditional" one, and any effort to distance ourselves really only serves to let us pat ourselves on the back.

My professor was as unimpressed with my arguments as I was with Weber's. George Bush, on the other hand, has made my argument feel even more correct to me. His signing statements are notorious now for subverting the law, there's an open debate whether Bush will even obey Congress should it try and restrict his war aims, and Marty Lederman says Bush is even less obedient to the law than Richard Nixon. You remember how that ended, right?

Let me give a more specific example. I've been talking a lot about Vietnam lately, and one of the things that went disastrously wrong in Vietnam was the marginalization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So in the 1980s, Congress passed a new law that was a direct reaction to the trauma of Vietnam, which added a whole bunch of statutory powers to the JCS and was supposed to prevent some new McNamara from marginalizing the Chiefs in the same way.

Well, now that the Rumsfeld era is finally over, we can say at least one thing for certain: the law didn't work. Rumsfeld found whole new ways to marginalize the JCS and silence opposition in the military. This pattern can be found over and over again in the Bush II period -- laws passed, laws ignored, Congress did nothing.

So today Ted Kennedy announced a bill forbidding the introduction of new troops in to Iraq. And I love him for it. But what happens if Bush simply ignores the law, or introduces a signing statment rendering it meaningless, or using any one of the tricks he's been using all along? What happens to the law when the man charged with protecting and executing the law renders it meaningless?

Pelosi has said that impeachment is off the table. I really, really hope there's a "for now" in that statement. Because if Bush disobeys a directive of Congress, there's really no other alternative.

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