There is nothing new about presidents who are eager to overstep the bounds of their power, whether they are conservative or liberal in their political views. But the strategies that George W. Bush used to strengthen his presidency--and weaken other branches of government--have been more widespread than the ones employed in the past. Rather than isolated abuses of executive power, such as Bill Clinton's bombing of Kosovo without congressional approval, the actions of the Bush administration have been the most systematic abuses of executive authority since the branch's powers were curtailed in the wake of Watergate.
"You know how there are all these checks and balances in the government?" says Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. "Under the Bush administration, all that was turned on its head. When you look at what they did, it's like reading the opposite of the Federalist Papers." Despite the fact that Alexander Hamilton clearly articulated that there should be checks on the president's power--especially in a time of war--the Bush administration selectively interpreted the Federalist Papers to claim that Congress has no right to restrict the president. Government lawyers such as John Yoo, who worked in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, went so far as to assert that Hamilton's view of "executive unity" allows for a supercharged executive branch with unlimited power.
Some of Bush's power grabs made national news. Unaccountable military contractors in Iraq and ideological shenanigans at the Justice Department were front-page headlines. However, to gain a true sense of Bush's legacy we must look beyond these individual transgressions and examine how the administration employed politically motivated strategies throughout the federal government--with devastating results. In other words, to understand what happened to government under the Bush administration, we must look at the methods that were used to break it down.
These methods, which included everything from meddling with scientific research to get the desired results to appointing former lobbyists to watchdog positions, were not, of course, all directly supervised by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, or other high-level officials. They were often carried out by an array of lower-level officials, many of whom were political appointees, all of whom were operating in the same climate of secrecy and working for a government that condoned and encouraged attempts to expand the reach of the executive branch and its political agenda.
These are deeply entrenched problems that do not lend themselves to easy solutions. It is unlikely that they can be resolved in the first month--or even the first year of Barack Obama's presidency. He will need to take a systematic approach to fixing government, just as Bush took a systematic approach to breaking it down. To what extent Obama is willing to do that and how quickly he will embark on the project are urgent questions. "Giving up power is one of the most difficult things to do," says Karen J. Greenberg, executive director at New York University Law School's Center on Law and Security. As she points out, George Washington may be celebrated for relinquishing kingly power, but scaling back is not so common these days.
In order to roll back the damage Bush has done over the past eight years, we must have some idea of its scope. In the following pages, we survey some of the systematic ways the Bush administration undermined the federal government, in the hope that the new administration can begin to repair the damage.
Written and reported by Tara MeKelvey, Te-Ping Chen, Ann Friedman, Esther Kaplan, Sheila Kaplan, Meredith Kolodner, Carolyn Petri, Alyssa Rosenberg and LaNitra Walker. Research assistance provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.
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