Of The Conference On Presidential Powers,
And Stealth Immunity For Bushman

Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

As written of here in advance, on October 14th and 15th a conference on ever-increasing presidential powers was held at the Massachusetts School of Law, in Andover (MSL), where this writer is Dean.  The conference was even better than had been hoped.  Many leading scholars in the field delivered speeches or remarks that ranged from the historically analytical to the spellbinding.  At the end, this writer was supposed to deliver a summary of what was said, a summary of themes and future paths.  But it could not be done.  There was simply too much that had been said, too many ideas, both historical and future oriented, that had been discussed or floated.

A true summary of the proceedings has to await the availability of DVDs of the proceedings or perhaps even the transcript of them.  The possibility of a true summary is thus at least some weeks off.  But it is possible even early on to list a few of the important ideas that surfaced, sometimes repeatedly.  They would include:

  • The framers intended Congress, not the President, to be the powerful political branch.  They greatly feared a powerful Executive.  But the founders’ intent is at the opposite pole from what now exists.

  • Congress, contrary to what the founders believed would occur, does not protect its institutional prerogatives against Executive encroachments.

  • The commander-in-chief power was not intended by the framers to give the President the powers that Bushman, Johnson and others have claimed (usurped under it).

  • The existence of a large standing army has been a major contributor -- possibly the major contributor -- to the growth of presidential power since 1950.

  • Executive secrecy has contributed to the President’s overwhelming power.  Many of the reservations claimed in Bushman signing statements are designed to foster Executive secrecy.

  • The number of oversight hearings held by Congress has declined.  This too contributes to increasing presidential power.

  • The Executive has been engaged in manifold abuses of power.

  • It is crucial to find some ways to put more power into the hands of the minority in Congress.  Perhaps there should be some American equivalent of the Prime Minister’s question time in the British Parliament.  Or (better yet, I think) perhaps the minority in Congress should have subpoena power.

  • The Executive, and George Bush in particular, were hell-bent on using the recent act relating to habeas corpus and military tribunals as a vehicle for gaining immunity for the illegal torture that they had long authorized and perpetrated.  It was generally felt that the clauses of the act providing such immunity were a serious blot on America.

  • One must listen to the Nixon tapes to really grasp how rotten a human being he was.  (Speaking personally, one wonders how many decades it will take for America to wake up to the same realization about the second Bush).

  • The question of increasing Executive power is thought by some to be the most fraught and important issue facing the country.  This is a point with which I agree, for reasons that will become clear below.

I believe this summary is reasonably accurate though very incomplete.  A fuller summary, like access to the entire proceedings themselves, must await the preparation of DVDs of the conference, transcripts of it, and/or the publication of the proceedings in book form.  The DVDs, which will not only be available as DVDs, but will also be put on the internet by MSL for viewing by computer and will be made downloadable by iPods, should be available in a matter of weeks.  Transcripts, which will also be placed on line by MSL, will take a bit longer, and a book longer still.  But these various means of modern communication will make the proceedings available in several ways for teachers, classes, and citizens who are interested in the subject of growing presidential power and want to know what some of the leading experts think.

One would especially hope…

This October 24, 2006, article can be found in its entirety at VelvelOnNationalAffairs.com.

This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel.  If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at velvel@mslaw.edu.  Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

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Harvard Square Commentary, October 30, 2006