Our nation is in a constitutional crisis (3/9/2008)

Ambitious presidents, aided by pro-executive judges and a passive Congress, have usurped power at the expense of the Constitution — and it won’t change until ordinary citizens realize what’s being lost, writes David Adler.

In a presentation to the Idaho Falls Rotary on Wednesday, I painted a grim picture of our government’s indifference to, and violation of, the Consti-tution. When it comes to decisions on war and peace and the conduct of American foreign policy, each of the three branches, in one way or another, has been part of the problem, as Ronald Reagan might have put it. In their own way, the executive, legislative and judicial branches have been party to a systematic subversion of the constitutional principles that govern our nation’s foreign relations.

In a nutshell, for the past hal-century, presidents Republican and Democratic alike have usurped congressional power over war and foreign affairs. For its part, Congress has been content to acquiesce in this pattern of executive aggrandizement. The courts have tended to avoid ruling on the great question of presidential war making by invoking technical doctrines to justify their abstention.

At bottom, the nation is caught in a constitutional crisis of great moment, and Americans are right to wonder: Who is minding the store?

Members of my audience, like other concerned citizens, rightly wonder: What can we do to restore a constitutional presidency and surmount the domination of a string of imperial presidents? Institutional remedies suggest themselves, but they are likely to be unavailing.

For one, we can hope that the next president will reject the congressional powers that have been usurped by the executive. That could happen, although Sen. Hillary Clinton managed only to say that she would “consider” returning those powers. Moreover, history teaches that powers acquired won’t be returned to their rightful owner.

For another, Congress might find some institutional resolve and reclaim its constitutional turf. That, too, seems unlikely, but we can hope that institutionalists will emerge. And we might hope that the courts will find the wisdom and courage of their predecessors and restrain a usurpatious executive. But we cannot expect courts staffed with pro-executive attorneys to exercise an about face.

No, my friends, the cure for this disease must come from the body politic. Our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, had the answer for this illness. There was in his time, as in ours, a fervent need for the citizenry to revere the Constitution, to view it, he wrote, as “the nation’s political religion,” for if we view the Constitution in that manner, he believed, then the people would rise to its defense when the need arises.

Clearly, the need is here. The question, however, is whether we will heed the advice and counsel of Lincoln and rise to the defense of our Constitution.

Adler is a political science professor at Idaho State University who has written and lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and presidential power.