Why we act

There are few roles in our constitutional government that are more frustrating than being a member of the minority party during a period of one party control of the government. However, at a time when the majority party in general — and the president in particular — appears to be acting in open violation of the laws and the Constitution, there are few jobs which are more important to the future of our democratic form of government.

People think of Watergate or Iran Contra as constituting crises. They were, in the sense that an executive branch was acting in violation of the law and in tension with the majority party in the Congress. But in the end, the system worked, the abuses were investigated, and actions were taken — even if presidential pardons ultimately prevented a full measure of justice.

Today, the crisis is substantively and systemically far worse. The alleged acts of wrongdoing — lying about the decision to go to war; manipulation of intelligence; facilitating and countenancing torture; using confidential information to out a CIA agent; open and flagrant violations of federal wiretap laws — are far more egregious than any I have witnessed in my 41 years in Congress. The majority party has shown no ability to engage in simple oversight, let alone challenge the administration directly. The courts, while operating as an occasional and partial check, are institutionally incapable of delving into most of the controversies we are presented with as a result of limitations on standing, ripeness, and other doctrines. The media, which is increasingly concentrated, was shell-shocked and in some respects cowered by 9/11, and for the most part unwilling to alienate the party in charge.

Faced with that dilemma, we had a choice. We could simply ignore the myriad of transgressions being committed, and continue to react to the legislative agenda put before us by the Republican Party on a day-to-day basis, or we could do everything in our power to call attention to and document these very grave abuses of power. I opted for the latter course.

I could not live with myself or my children if, when faced with an administration that went to war under false pretenses, used classified information to smear political opponents and wiretapped innocent Americans without warrants, I did not formally respond to it. If the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Constitution, is silent on these matters, who else can we expect to speak out?

So for the last several years I have:

• Forwarded scores of letters to the administration requesting information about these abuses, including a letter signed by 122 members of Congress and more than 500,000 Americans.

• Forwarded numerous letters to the Republican chairs asking them to conduct hearings on these abuses, including a letter signed by 52 members.

• Filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the administration, asked for investigations by GAO, various inspectors general, and the Justice Department.

• Held our own Democratic hearings, for which we were forced by the majority to retreat to the basement of the Capitol.

• Filed legislation resulting from our investigation not only censuring the president and the vice president, but creating a select committee to more fully investigate whether impeachable offenses had occurred.

When the National Security Agency scandal broke, we again responded with letters, requests for independent investigations, holding our own hearing, and are now in the process of completing a comprehensive report of these and related civil rights and civil liberties abuses by the administration since 9/11.

All of this constitutes a public record of the constitutional abuses we have seen, and is designed to stand the test of time. It comes on top of the hearings and report I prepared on the electoral abuses in Ohio, which led to an unprecedented Electoral College challenge in the House and the Senate.

Now let me add, in many respects, this is just the tip of the iceberg of the policy failures of this administration. Over the last six years we have seen a record budget surplus turn into a record deficit; we face trade deficits as far as they eye can see and the near evisceration of our manufacturing base; we have a record number of individuals and families who do not have health insurance; we passed a disastrous Medicare sell-out bill; we went through the debacle of Congress and the president politicizing the tragic Terri Schiavo case; port security is abysmal, the Homeland Security Department is a joke, and we learned that Bush knew very well that the levees in New Orleans could be breached even though he later said no one anticipated it. These are all weighty, serious issues. They present significant problems for our nation as well. However, they are not of the same constitutional magnitude as the issues we’re talking about here.

There can be no doubt that today we are in a constitutional crisis that threatens the system of checks and balances that has preserved our fundamental freedoms for more than 200 years. Just because the president’s approval ratings is down to 34 percent and the vice president’s approval is down to 18 percent, does not mean they cannot do severe, long-term harm to our nation. Our actions are an important clarion call to anyone who is listening — that there is a constitutional line that even a president cannot cross without our people standing up and fighting for their democracy.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) is ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

This is slightly abridged from his diary on www.dailykos.com.