September 17 Is Constitution Day; There's Little to Celebrate

It has been a tough few years for "We the People," as Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., noted last week in a teleconference held by Common Cause. The Bush administration has sidestepped the rule of law, thumbed its nose at congressional oversight and attempted to overwhelm the separation of powers, leaving our Constitution -- as well as our democracy and our standing in the world -- on a precipice.

Sept. 17 is Constitution Day, the anniversary of the first signing of that sacred founding document 221 years ago, a critical moment not only to relearn the content of the Constitution, but to fight for it -- to make sure that its laws and values do not continue to erode.

Fired U.S. attorneys, warrantless wiretaps, government-sanctioned torture, "executive privilege" -- how did we get here? Power struggles between the branches of government are nothing new; as constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley says, "God knows we've never had a president who didn't want to be Congress and we've never had a Congress who didn't want to be president. The framers had no illusions about the president ... who would have an insatiable desire to expand (his) own power."

The framers enshrined a delicate balance of powers in the Constitution. But the Bush administration has challenged that delicate balance and seized, consolidated and wielded executive power in ways unparalleled in modern American history. The administration has excessively used "state secrets" and executive privilege to shield its actions from public scrutiny; has allowed the torture of prisoners in violation of international law; has politicized the Department of Justice for partisan purposes; and has cited a radical theory about executive power in claiming that the president may "exceed" the law. The list goes on and includes misuse of signing statements, the demanding of immunity for telephone companies whose violations of the law remain largely secret, and more. The net result is not only a democracy in distress but the distinct possibility that these actions will set a precedent for future presidents and further abuses.

As congressional ethics expert Stanley Brand notes, however, it's a "supine Congress" that allowed such excesses to go unchallenged.

Rather than assert itself by denying appropriation money, subpoenaing witnesses and documents or insisting on accountability, Congress let its powers sit idly. Now, in the face of that rare situation in which the pillars of checks and balances and separation of powers have become so weakened, the question becomes: What must be done to fix it? And who has the power to carry out those fixes?

What must be done is threefold: Candidates for president and for Congress must pledge their commitment to restore the constitutional rule of law in the coming term, and if elected, must adhere to that pledge; Congress must pass legislation to fix the breaches in the law laid bare in the past several years, and in so doing reassert its constitutionally mandated role as an equal branch of government; and Congress and the next president must hold accountable those who broke the law.

A fourth piece, of course, is a show of popular support and a concerted push by citizens throughout the country to make sure all three of those remedies are put into place.

Constitution Day is a perfect opportunity for candidates -- including Barack Obama and John McCain -- to declare their intentions of upholding the laws and spirit of that founding document.

In order to restore the core values of American democracy that have made us a beacon of hope to people around the world -- freedom from tyranny, respect for individual liberty and human rights, and government based on the rule of law -- Common Cause has called upon all who would serve as the next president or in the next Congress to abide by the following principles:

  • To end torture, respect human rights and restore America's reputation in the world;

  • To respect the rule of law and to fiercely challenge anyone who seeks to undermine the Constitution and the Bill of Rights;

  • To root out corruption, special interest abuses and partisan prejudice in the administration of justice;

  • To hold to account -- without exception -- anyone who breaks the law or violates the public trust; and

  • To protect personal freedom by rejecting warrantless spying, stifling of dissent and other affronts to individual liberty.

Those principles encompass the steps needed to heal this country and reclaim our flag as the symbol of a democracy we can all be proud of. More than 200 candidates have signed the pledge on this Recapture the Flag campaign.

As Feingold said, "I believe that one of the most important things that the next president must do, whoever he may be, (is that he) must take immediate steps to restore the rule of law in this country. He must make sure that the excesses of this administration don't somehow become ingrained in our system permanently."

And it will be up to us, the people, to call upon him to restore the core values of American democracy by protecting and upholding the Constitution above all.

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