Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Executive power abuse, part 2

I spent the weekend immersed in study of the machinations of power behind the scenes at the White House and the Capitol, and let me tell you, what's been going on over there is absolutely frightening. There is proof positive available, if only the journalists who have been silenced by this administration can finally bring it out, that the Executive Branch has been hijacked by people with little regard for the Constitution, or for basic standards of decency and ethics. There seems little doubt now that the administration has lied, cheated, murdered and stolen its way to power, and there doesn't seem to be much that the people can do about this usurpation.

I'm talking of course, about the chicanery of the fictional Vice President Frank Underwood, whose world became an alternate reality this past weekend for a lot of political geeks like myself. It's probably best to treat House of Cards merely as a guilty pleasure, but even though it probably won't bear the weight, I can't help wondering whether I can use it as a springboard for discussing some serious questions. I start with the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, the essential mechanism of Underwood's scheme to rise to the top of power. Recall that the 25th Amendment is a relatively recent addition to the Constitution, adopted only in 1967. It comes into play in the very unusual situation where a vacancy arises in the office of Vice-President, and it empowers the President to appoint a successor to fill such a vacancy. Before the adoption of the 25th Amendment, vacancies in the office of Vice-President were simply left unfilled until the next election. Perhaps that was a problem that needed fixing. But the people who drafted the 25th Amendment probably weren't thinking of the possibility that the vice-president might be tricked into resigning, or that the president could be tricked into appointing the very conniver who engineered that resignation, to fill that vacancy. And it doesn't spoil any of the surprises of the second season, for those who haven't finished watching it yet, to understand where anyone who can do those sorts of things is thinking of heading next.

Is such a situation so far-fetched that we shouldn't worry about the possibility of a corrupt and power-mad administration coming to power without being elected by the people? Perhaps, but the most amazing part of the history of the 25th Amendment is that it was actually invoked only a few years after it was adopted, almost as if the sponsors of the amendment knew we were going to need it to deal with the corrupt actions of the very next presidential administration, in a series of circumstances that no doubt inspired the writers of House of Cards. In 1973, Vice-President Agnew was forced to resign from office due to a bribery scandal arising from his term as Governor of Maryland. President Nixon was thus empowered by the nearly brand new 25th Amendment, to appoint House Minority Leader Gerald Ford to the vice-presidency. This happened while Nixon was already under suspicion of the crimes that led a House committee to vote impeachment charges the following year. After President Nixon resigned, new President Ford pardoned the predecessor who had appointed him. The pardon forever tainted the short-lived Ford administration. Ford had his own chance to take advantage of the 25th amendment, appointing Nelson Rockefeller to the vice-presidency, and saddling the country with both a president and a vice-president who were not elected to those offices. For those who believe in conspiracy theories, as well as those who believe that there are secret societies of the wealthy and powerful who are always really running things despite the trappings of democracy, we are talking about one of the authors of the Warren Commission report and one of the richest men in America both in power without an election. I happen to believe that both Ford and Rockefeller were decent people, but still, it didn't look good at all for a constitutional republic to sanction this result.

House of Cards tracks some of the Agnew-Nixon-Ford history pretty closely, using some of the same devices to propel the characters to their fates. It prompts the question whether the 25th Amendment was even a good idea, encouraging both in real life and in this fictional scenario the possibility of a tainted administration coming to power. We were preoccupied by other problems during the Nixon scandals, but maybe it's now finally time to re-think the idea of appointing vice-presidents--who have a tendency to become presidents--and devise another procedure, like a special election, instead.

As for the show, what might have been even scarier than echoing some of the events of the Nixon and Ford presidencies, would have been to try out another section of the 25th Amendment, one that has never been invoked in history. That is section 4, which allows the Vice-President and a majority of the cabinet to declare the President incapacitated and appoint the Vice-President as Acting President. (This section did come into play in the movie Air Force One, where Vice-President Glenn Close had to decide whether to declare President Harrison Ford incapacitated.) Imagine the possibilities of a scheming vice-president like Frank Underwood, who we know does not shrink from arranging for the demise or disappearance of characters who stand in his way, finding a way to incapacitate the sitting president who is his only obstacle to assuming the top level of power. But perhaps that would have been too diabolical even for Underwood.

Watergate haunts us still, from television dramas to the lesser scandals of people like Governor Chris Christie. Every time such a scandal arises, it's "here we go again" time. The investigative press hounds are again on the trail looking for blood. The suffix "gate" is attached. The officials in question are trying to maintain their denials, and suspected of cover-ups. Because of Nixon and Watergate, practically every subsequent president has been threatened with impeachment for both real and concocted scandals. Those felled by the last scandal are always looking for payback. Meanwhile, the public can't always tell the difference between politics as a real struggle of competing people and ideas, and politics as entertainment.

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