As part of my job, I am on a lot of political party mailing lists, Republican, Democratic, American Independent, Libertarian. In the case of the American Independents and the Libertarians, they are usually issue messages.
In the case of the two major parties (that’s the Democrats and Republicans, in case you were in doubt), some of them send actual news, but not often. The Republicans mostly send polemics. The Democrats mostly ask for money.
On June 25, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner threatened to sue President Obama. Since that date, I have received innumerable pleas for money from the Democrats, mostly from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), plus the Obama group Organizing for Action and even, locally, Friends for Harry Reid. I haven’t been able to count them all but there are at least 91 of them, sent in fewer than 40 days.
They all feature a tone of outrage over Boehner’s alleged perfidy which they seem to assume is shared by the recipient. It seems that suing the president of the United States is beyond the pale. It is also, according to one of these DCCC mailings signed by Nancy Pelosi on July 30, unprecedented: “Just now, I watched Republicans vote for the first lawsuit against a President in U.S. history.”
That’s not true. As I’ve written before (see http://tinyurl.com/mjbggk2), Democrats have often sued presidents, and for exactly the reason Boehner is doing so – to try to curb abuse of executive orders and, indeed, to define the legally allowable scope of those orders. Which raises the question, why aren’t some Democrats joining Boehner’s lawsuit to try to accomplish this longtime Democratic goal?
On one occasion in 1973 U.S. Rep. Jerry Litton of Missouri, a Democrat, was reading through the Federal Register. This is a daily publication that records all the federal rules, proposals for rules, and public notices. It’s deadly dull reading but essential reading for anyone who wants to know what D.C. is doing. What Litton found was Executive Order 11697, issued by President Richard Nixon to allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to start prying into the Internal Revenue Service records of farmers.
Litton brought the obscure order to public attention. Executive orders don’t normally get a lot of attention, but this was the Watergate era, and President Nixon and company had been caught misusing IRS records. Lists of Nixon enemies had been drawn up to be targeted for tax audits.
The Washington Post ran an investigative series on Order 11697 and related abuses. The Post quoted Rep. Bill Alexander of Arkansas, also a Democrat, saying that it constitutes a “frightening prospect that the administration is attempting to begin the process of making personal income information of whole classes of people available to various departments and agencies…” Litton pointed out that former Nixon aide and Watergate conspirator John Ehrlichman once argued for a policy of making the Internal Revenue Service “more politically responsive” and suggested that if “they could get away with [the farmers maneuver] that they could try another field later.”
Moreover, Nixon also had an Obama-like habit of circumventing Congress with executive orders. Nixon put a military base into the Persian Gulf and military forces into the Indian Ocean, using executive orders instead of treaties that would be subject to Senate approval or budget requests that would be subject to Congressional approval. According to columnist Jack Anderson, Nixon (who tended to equate citizen protests with armed rebellion) also had handy some executive order drafts for use in cracking down on citizen critics of his policies.
The dispute between Nixon and the Democrats over executive orders – normally a pretty obscure topic – became visible enough that even the Sunday newspaper supplement Parade ran a piece in January 1974 to explain the orders to the public.
Two Senate committees opened inquiries into executive orders and it became a Watergate-related abuse. A couple of dozen members of Congress, including Edward Kennedy, were suing Nixon to try to get a handle on his efforts to circumvent Congress. Which again begs the question, why aren’t Democrats now supporting Boehner’s lawsuit? Are only Republican executive orders threats to congressional authority?
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.