Protecting the President's Power
James A. Baker III came to see Wyoming's sole member of Congress on Nov. 19, 1980, days after Ronald Reagan won election as president. He was about to assume the post of White House chief of staff, which then-Rep. Dick Richard B. Cheney (R-Wyo.) had held at the age of 34. Cheney's advice, recorded in four pages of handwritten notes on Baker's yellow legal pad, began with this:
1. Restore power & auth to Exec Branch -- Need strong ldr'ship. Get rid of War Powers Act -- restore independent rights.****** Central theme we ought to push
Cheney's muscular views on presidential power, then and now, offer one answer to the question raised often by former colleagues in recent years: What happened to the careful, mainstream conservative they once thought they understood?
In fact, Cheney's views on executive supremacy -- like many of his core beliefs about foreign policy and defense -- have held remarkably steady over the years. What changed was his power to promote them.
In the Ford administration, Cheney backed largely losing arguments on executive authority, resisting the limits set by Congress after the Watergate scandal and the Church Committee's revelations of CIA abuse. He lamented a congressional override of President Gerald R. Ford's veto of amendments strengthening the Freedom of Information Act, opposed the limits on eavesdropping set by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and described the War Powers Act of 1973 as unconstitutional.
Cheney left the White House at what he later called "the low point" of presidential authority. Congress is "all too often swayed by the public opinion of the moment" and is incapable of making the swift decisions required in "a dangerous and hostile world," Cheney said at an American Enterprise Institute conference on Dec. 6, 1983, according to the transcript.
In a turn of phrase he would use many times after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Cheney said -- in the context of Reagan's invasion of Grenada, an island nation with 1,500 men under arms -- that it "might have cost hundreds of lives" had Reagan waited for "the usual dialog and debate about whether Congress would authorize action."
Simply by creating a defense establishment, Cheney said, Congress had "already given prior approval" for any presidential decision on where and how to make war. "We have appropriated the funds and raised the army and purchased the equipment and built the missiles and the bombers, and the president has the authority to make decisions about how to use those things," he said.
Not long before becoming vice president, at a 2000 conference about White House chiefs of staff, Cheney recalled that even as "a congressman, I found that I was still very much taken with the notion, the preeminence, if you will, of the president" in foreign policy and defense.
Every modern president, to some degree, has shared that view. But none -- including Reagan -- took the absolutist path that Cheney urged. Rather than "get rid of" the War Powers Act of 1973, which requires the consent of Congress after any 60-day deployment of U.S. forces abroad, Baker helped Reagan finesse the issue. Without acknowledging an obligation to do so, Baker negotiated a 1983 resolution with then-Rep. Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wisc.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, to permit Marines to remain in Lebanon.
But the Reagan administration also maneuvered secretly to circumvent congressional bans on trading with Iran and funding Nicaraguan rebels known as Contras. An independent counsel indicted three top officials, including National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter, and a special congressional committee of Congress concluded that the Reagan White House had subverted the Constitution.
Cheney was among the principal authors of a blistering dissent. The scandal, according to the Iran-Ccontra committee's minority report, was not that the White House had broken the law, but that Congress had tried to command the commander in chief. Reagan's secret decisions -- to sell prohibited arms to Iran and funnel the proceeds to Nicaragua's Contra rebels -- were not always wise, according to the minority report, but they "were constitutionally protected exercises of inherent Presidential powers."
Cheney was particularly concerned that the scandal would give momentum to a congressional effort to require notification of all covert actions within 48 hours, said Michael J. Malbin, who worked for Cheney on the committee.
Malbin recalled Cheney asking what would have happened if that rule had been in place during President Jimmy Carter's attempt to rescue hostages in Iran. Canada had offered assistance, conducting a clandestine operation to evacuate six U.S. citizens who had found their way to Canadian diplomats in Tehran. The Ottawa government insisted that Carter not inform Congress, and he agreed.
David Gergen, who worked with Cheney during the Ford years, said the vice president's "zealous reassertion of the power of the presidency" during this administration is completely consistent with the views he expressed long ago.
"He felt that what had become known as the imperial presidency during Nixon had become the imperiled presidency," Gergen said. "Where a number of us people part company with him is that a number of us believe that through Reagan, those powers had been substantially restored. When George W. Bush became president, I didn't think that should or would be a major priority."
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