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Collision course

6

The White House has just thrown Miracle-Gro on to the growing Constitutional confrontation between Bush and Congress over the latter’s investigation into the firing of U.S. prosecutors.

Bush administration officials unveiled a bold new assertion of executive authority yesterday in the dispute over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, saying that the Justice Department will never be allowed to pursue contempt charges initiated by Congress against White House officials once the president has invoked executive privilege.

Go ahead and file contempt charges, the administration is saying. Under federal law, those charges can only be pursued by a U.S. attorney. And because the administration won’t let the Justice Department approve such a pursuit, the charges will die from neglect.

The power-grab here is pretty astonishing. The president isn’t just asserting that his invocation of executive privilege trumps Congress’ power of oversight, a claim that is at least plausible; he’s asserting that such invocation of executive privilege in the face of a contempt citation can never be challenged in court, because the Justice Department will simply refuse to bring the charges.

Now, this claim is currently limited to the narrow question of Congress filing contempt charges. But within that narrow scope it effectively puts the President above the law. And since contempt charges are Congress’ main weapon against executive privilege claims it removes most limits on such claims.

True, Congress could still file a civil lawsuit to force a judicial decision on a specific claim. But such a decision would lack teeth. Say Congress wins its civil lawsuit, and the president still refuses to turn over documents. What recourse does Congress have? Nothing short of impeachment, with contempt charges off the table.

(continued over at Midtopia)