US elections 2008: Clinton's promise to curtail executive power and restore checks and balances is belied by her record
In a speech to newspaper editors earlier this month, senator Hillary Clinton denounced the "imperial presidency" of George Bush and promised to pursue a different course if she becomes president.
But that promise is hardly more believable than her claims to have dodged sniper fire in Bosnia.
Clinton's primary case for her candidacy is her White House experience during the presidency of her husband. And those years were marked by expansions of federal and executive power, secrecy and claims of executive privilege.
In her campaign she says that she would "restore the checks and balances and the separation of powers". But back in 2003, she told ABC's George Stephanopoulos: "I'm a strong believer in executive authority. I wish that, when my husband was president, people in Congress had been more willing to recognise presidential authority." She encouraged President Clinton to intervene in Haiti and Bosnia and to bomb Serbia, all without congressional authorisation.
In the case of the bombing of Serbia, Congress actually took a vote. The House of Representatives refused to authorise the air strikes, but the Clinton administration "sort of just blew by" that technicality, in the words of a White House spokesman.
President Clinton also ordered air strikes on Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq, all without congressional approval. That's practically the definition of an imperial president, and it sharply undermines Hillary Clinton's statement in this campaign that "I do not believe that the president can take military action - including any kind of strategic bombing - against Iran without congressional authorisation."
The Clinton administration also vastly expanded the use of executive orders to usurp Congress's lawmaking powers. President Clinton used executive orders to nationalise millions of acres of land, impose pro-union rules that Congress wouldn't pass, strengthen the federal government's hand in disputes over federalism, self-authorise his military actions in Yugoslavia and more. The most succinct and pointed defence of his unilateral legislating came from White House aide Paul Begala: "Stroke of the pen. Law of the land. Kind of cool."
As William Olson and Alan Woll pointed out in a 1999 Cato Institute study, President Clinton often legislated through an even more obscure vehicle than executive orders. "Several of President Clinton's major policy actions, for which he has been severely criticised, were accomplished not through formal directives but through orders to subordinates, or 'memoranda'. Those include his 'don't ask, don't tell' rule for the military; his removal of previously imposed bans on abortions in military hospitals, on foetal tissue experimentation, on Agency for International Development funding for abortion counselling organisations and on the importation of the abortifacient drug RU-486; and his efforts to reduce the number of federally licensed firearms dealers."
In another Clinton-era study, Timothy Lynch took the administration to task for its warrantless searches and wiretapping, its unauthorised military actions and its legal claim that the federal government has "plenary powers" to legislate on any matter, notwithstanding the limitations imposed by the Constitution.
Senator Clinton told the newspaper editors: "I will restore openness in government. When I am president, the era of Bush/Cheney secrecy will be over." But the Clinton administration fought in court to keep secret the names of those who participated in first lady Hillary Clinton's task force on healthcare reform. And Bill Clinton repeatedly claimed executive privilege to resist investigations by Congress and independent counsels into his pardons of Puerto Rican terrorists, his perjury in the Monica Lewinsky case and other matters. In his battles with independent counsel Kenneth Starr, Clinton became the first president since Watergate to take a claim of executive privilege to court and lose. "Openness" is not a quality the Clintons have been noted for.
The big problem with Hillary Clinton's promise to be a less imperial president is her expansive conception of the role of the federal government in society. Clinton wants the federal government to have vast powers to do good as she sees it. She told the newspaper editors: "I believe in the power of the presidency to set big goals for America and to solve the problems of Americans, to ensure that our people have the tools they need to turn challenges into opportunities, to fulfil their God-given potential and to build better lives for themselves and their children."
At other times she has proclaimed herself a "government junkie", promised to devote herself to "redefining who we are as human beings in the post-modern age" and declared that her administration would help Americans to "quit smoking, to get more exercise, to eat right, to take their vitamins".
Any president who views the federal government as a vast, sprawling nanny, a nurturing mother for every adult, is going to view resistance to her plans as an affront to decency. And as President Bill Clinton demonstrated, if Congress won't act or votes against the president's policies, the president must act in the name of all the people to give the people what they need. Aggrandisement of presidential power has consistently gone along with growth in the size, scope and power of the federal government.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that only 39% of Americans regard Hillary Clinton as "honest and trustworthy". It's hard to imagine that even 39% of voters would believe her promise to restore checks and balances and reduce the power of the office she seeks to occupy.
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