Friday, June 22, 2007

A Question of Checks and Balances

An oversight agency created in an executive order by President Clinton and subsequently modified by President Bush has complained of a lack of cooperation from Vice President Dick Cheney's office. According to William Leonard, director of The National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, the Vice President has argued that his office does not meet the definition of an executive branch agency and is therefore exempt from oversight. Furthermore, Leonard claims that the Vice President has recommended the dissolution of the agency under an executive order modification. (CNN: Congressman: Cheney challenges classified oversight.)

The Vice President's claim is tenuous at best, and appears to be based on the following clause in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution which reads, "The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States." The original text, and the original view of the framers of the Constitution, did indeed envision a single chief executive. Since then, however, amendments to the Constitution have joined the office of the Vice President and office of the President, given specific executive powers to the Vice President during periods of presidential incapacitation. To argue that the office of the Vice President is not an executive branch agency is no longer a viable argument thanks to both the 20th and 25th amendments of the Constitution.

The framers of the Constitution envisioned three co-equal branches of government. Specific duties were assigned to each, but when you look at the specific powers granted to each branch, it is clear that the founding fathers were placing their faith in the Congress, and specifically in the Senate. It is to the Senate that the power of advice and consent has been granted, and it is clear that the framers of the Constitution intended the Senate to provide oversight with regards to the office of the President. While the executive branch was given veto authority over Congress, it is Congress that has the final word with the ability to override a veto. The founding fathers were very careful not to create an executive branch that had too much authority, or that had the ability to override acts of Congress.

What the founders envisioned was a system of checks and balances that would prevent any one branch of government from assuming absolute power. For any branch of government to assume that they are exempt from oversight authority is simply unconstitutional. Oversight of the executive branch by the legislative is at the very heart of our system of government. What is troubling is that the Supreme Court has not upheld this system of checks and balances. In 2001, a challenge issued by the Vice President in his refusal to adhere to congressional requests for lists of energy executives was upheld by the courts. The Supreme Court refused to overturn that decision, thus granting undue authority to the executive branch.

It all comes down to a question of checks and balances. The bottom line is that no one branch of government is supreme. In all cases, two branches of government are required to take action. In the case of the executive branch, oversight on the part of Congress is essential. No agency or office is exempt from that oversight. There can be no exemption from the system of checks and balances that comprise the foundation of our government.

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