If you ever get too confident about the strength of our republic, please, hop a bus and zoom on down to Congress. I spent the morning and a chunk of the afternoon on the Hill to hear Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr address a House Judiciary Committee hearing on "Executive Power and Its Constitutional Limitations."
The title was a smokescreen, as the hearing came about when Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) introduced multiple articles of impeachment against the president and vice president. The Democratic leadership killed them, but members of the committee such as Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) co-sponsored them, so Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) scheduled a hearing that would air out Kucinich's concerns and assemble a Justice League of constitutional scholars. Seated on one side of Barr was former Democratic congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, author of The Impeachment of George W. Bush ("It's out of date but it still has a lot you can use!"). Seated on his other side was former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, an iconoclast who protested George W. Bush when he came to Utah and endorsed Bill Richardson for president. Tyrant-killer for hire Bruce Fein did most of the speaking for the "hey, maybe this Bush guy isn't up to much good" side, while Northwestern University's Stephen Presser and George Mason's Jeremy Rabkin took turns accusing the Democrats, and their co-panelists, of going overboard. (Their job got easier when panelist Vincent Bugliosi repeatedly accused Bush of "first degree murder.")
There's a live-blog of the hearings here. Barr was introduced by Conyers—the Master to his Doctor Who back in the Clinton years—with a warm "welcome back to the Judiciary Committee," and his comments bored into a few examples of Bush DOJ intransigence before making a larger point about the racheting up of executive power.
Every administration, in my view, and I think history bears this out, takes the power that it inherited from its predecessor and considers it a floor, not a ceiling. If we don't get a handle on this now in some fashion, the next administration, regardless of party, will take these abuses of power, these liberties with the fundamental institutions of our government, and take them to even higher and higher levels. I commend the chair and the members of this committee for taking hold of something that could not be more important.
But the testimony was given to a committee that was largely—with some exceptions, like New York's Jerry Nadler—bored or resentful. Democrats trickled in and out, shuffling papers, passing messages to Conyers. Republicans like California's Dan Lungren used their allotted time to whine about the "partisanship" that had brought about the hearings. Iowa's Steve King (when I listen to him I'm always expecting one of the Bluth Banana Stand employees to creep up and tell him his shift is starting) blathered about how Democrats thought Saddam had WMD too, so there! He asked Conyers if he could enter into the record a 2004 Chicago Tribune article in which Obama blurred his Iraq War stance. "I'm a little reluctant to," Conyers said. "But if there are no other objections…"
Almost as disappointing: the circus outside. It's not news, exactly, that the hard-core "peace movement" has mighty-morphed into a cadre of old hippies and sloganeering women with pink crowns, but it's always a little disheartening to show up to a forum on executive power and see that, yep, these are the only people who care right now. Activists had lined up as early as 4 a.m. to score seats and only 16 of them got in. When one of the unluckies refused to move away from the door, Capitol police tackled him as Code Pink activists yelled "Shame! Shame!" "That's a little bit of P.O.P." said Jose Rodriguez, a political activist who used to handle the Mike Gravel campaign. "Pissing off the police! They wanted to keep him out of the room and he decided that he still had Constitutional rights."
I talked a little to the libertarian anti-war Iraq vet Adam Kokesh, who said Cindy Sheehan (in attendance, as always) had started snubbing vets ever since she tried to exploit them to kick off a march that would have publicized her quixotic congressional bid. (She's running against Nancy Pelosi.) I also ran into Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, the defeated antiwar Republican whom I interviewed last year about his isolation in the GOP. He'd showed up to meet Bruce Fein ("I've read his books. We had a good talk."), but left before the hearing began. I asked what he had planned for his retirement.
"I don't consider it retirement," he said. "It's a graduation."
Barr will be on MSNBC's Countdown tonight (at 8 p.m. ET) to talk about the hearing.