Monday, February 18, 2019

Presidential Power Plays Call for Constitutional Solutions: The 25th Amendment and Beyond

By Greg Guma

Two-hundred and thirty-one years after the US system of government was created in Philadelphia, it appears to be slowly unraveling. Among the recent signs is growing talk about invoking the 25th Amendment, a “constitutional coup” provision for replacing the president in cases of death, resignation or incapacity. 

According to Andrew McCabe, the former deputy FBI director fired last year, top Justice Department officials at least considered the 25th as an option after the 2017 ouster of FBI Director James Comey. But even Donald Trump’s removal won’t counter the long-term drift toward executive supremacy. To do that, the country may require something more fundamental, another Constitutional Convention.

While speaking to California’s Public Interest Research Group in 1980, Ralph Nader put the presidency in an ironic, yet global perspective. At the time, President Jimmy Carter was struggling with a hostage crisis in Iran. Meanwhile, with the Republican nomination wrapped up, Ronald Reagan promised to win a renewed arms race with the USSR while simultaneously cutting taxes and implementing the conservative nostrum known as “supply-side economics.”

Noting that the race could have broad and drastic implications, Nader suggested a radical solution. “Ronald Reagan is such a threat to humanity,” he quipped, “that the whole world should be allowed to vote for US president.”

Clearly, that didn’t happen. But Nader’s point seems more valid than ever. Presidential power without meaningful accountability is deeply unfair and highly dangerous.

The creators of the US Constitution, although they could not anticipate everything, were certainly aware of the dangers of a drift toward monarchy and empire. Unfortunately, their 18th Century vision no longer meets the test. Even though the president technically needs congressional approval for expenditures and declarations of war, almost anything is possible if a “national security” rationale can be manufactured. Trump has made that all too obvious.

“The machinery of government is being moved to act on a lie,” noted Princeton Prof. Eddie Glaude on Meet the Press last Sunday, referring to the “national emergency” declared to fund Trump’s wall. “The constitutional crisis is here.”

Impeachment is again becoming a serious option. However, the last time that happened (Bill Clinton) the defendant ended up more popular afterward. And even Trump’s removal from office won’t counter the decades long development and evolution of the imperial executive. 

A president can be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” but only if Congress chooses to act. The truth is, many of the manipulative, unethical or arguably illegal actions inspired, condoned or actively promoted by presidents are actually tested tactics that most members of Congress dare not publicly condemn, questionable as they may be. Too many others are complicit. 

The 25th Amendment deals with replacement of the president or vice president in the event of death, removal, resignation, or incapacity. One of the most recent additions to the Constitution, it was proposed by Congress and ratified by the states after the assassination of President Kennedy, and was first applied during the Watergate scandal, when Gerald Ford replaced Spiro Agnew as vice president, then replaced Richard Nixon as president. Nelson Rockefeller filled the new vacancy as appointed vice president. 

It looked like a quiet constitutional coup that left an unelected executive team in charge for two years. And one of the first things President Ford did was pardon his predecessor. This time around the pardons could begin any minute.

How would the 25th work with Trump? Under Section 4, the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet would have to write the Senate President and House Speaker, explaining that the President “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." Already highly unlikely. But with that Vice President Mike Pence would become “Acting President.” Then Trump would send Congress his own "written declaration that no inability exists." He would also threaten to retake control unless —within four days! — Pence and a majority of either (a) the cabinet that Trump appointed, or (b) another body established by Congress says he is unable to do his job. 

This in turn would force Congress to assemble within 48 hours, and to vote less that 21 days later. If two-thirds of both Houses decided that Trump simply couldn’t do the job, Pence would continue on as Acting President. If they failed to decide, however, Trump would regain control of the presidency and the country would be in even bigger trouble. Great TV, but the payback could be biblical.

There must be a better way to run a government, especially since “successful” removal or impeachment  in this case means handing the presidency to another kind of extremist, one backed by the Koch Brothers, an evangelical who effortlessly echoes presidential lies, yet thinks he is on a mission from God.

According to historian Barbara Tuchman, the office of president “has become too complex and its reach too extended to be trusted to the fallible judgment of one individual.” Thus, she and others have suggested restructuring; one example is a directorate or Council of State to which the president would be accountable. Such ideas were discussed but ultimately dropped at the original Constitutional Convention.

While embracing limits on executive power like “advice and consent” on treaties and key appointments, the 1787 Convention narrowly rejected having the president operate in conjunction with a Council, specifically to serve as a check on unilateral executive power. Benjamin Franklin said at the time that a Council of State “would not only be a check on a bad president but be a relief to a good one.”

Delegates to the original Convention struggled with how to give a president sufficient authority, free from dependence on the legislative branch, without allowing him to become an “elective monarch.” As a result, Article II does not clearly define the term “executive power” or any specific presidential authority in times of war. Congress was given control of military appropriations and rule-making for the regulation of land and naval forces, suggesting that the delegates wanted the two branches to share decision-making power over war. But their general confusion and vagueness about the relationship between the president and Congress left the door open for a gradual expansion of executive power, especially over foreign policy.

Fundamental changes are overdue. Even if the US constitutional system survives Trump, presidents will continue to seek expanded power until clear limits are imposed and public pressure reverses the trend. In the end, the country may not be able to avoid another Constitutional Convention. Even then, the rest of the world probably won’t get to vote for president. But at the very least Trump’s brazen abuse of the office invites some serious rethinking. 

As happened during America’s original Convention, the stated purpose could be eclipsed (or even hijacked) by a “revolutionary” move to revamp the entire system. Still, it does take the approval of two-thirds of state legislatures just to call one, and three-fourths of them to ratify its results. That’s a pretty high bar. As a result, the US Constitution has only been amended when an overwhelming majority of the public views the change as extremely important — and sometimes not even then.

There is nevertheless the risk that something inadequate or worse might emerge, along with new restrictions of basic rights. After all, autocratic leaders and policies have been gaining influence around the world. On the other hand, that’s also an argument for acting fast. Attempting to renegotiate some of the terms struck 231 years ago in creating the US government is certainly preferable to downplaying the drift toward royalism and tyranny.

Dan Rather recently offered a sarcastic take. “Here's a weird piece of trivia,” tweeted the former TV anchor. “Apparently Congress has Constitutional powers as well. And apparently the nation's Founders took those powers seriously because they saw how having a king worked out. Who knew?”

But as Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1789, reflecting on whether their new national government would endure, “no society can make a perpetual constitution or perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please.” So let’s get started. 

Material in this article was originally developed for reports and editorials written as editor of Toward Freedom, an international affairs publication. 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Dangerous Words: A Political Memoir


  Dangerous Words: A Political Memoir
   By Greg Guma


Audio Prologue ON THE AIR: Burlington Reflections (May 2016)
(One month later Burlington College was closed)

Part One: Education of an Outsider (1960-1968)

Part Two: Fragile Paradise  (1968-1978)

Part Three: Prelude to a Revolution (1974-1978)

Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

An intellectual journey from Pythagoras to planetary consciousness -- and a new vision of freedom & cooperation. 
Prisoners of the Real makes the connection between solar and lunar knowledge, illuminating the cost of our preoccupation with certainty and order. 
Exploring insights from linguistics, psychology, physics, literature, philosophy and management science, it opens the door to a new vision of freedom and cooperation – Dionysian leadership.

Video Preview: Dionysus Rising

"Dionysian leaders use artistic methods to invent structures of reality. Although they acknowledge that scientific and artistic processes have equal worth, they de-emphasize logical reasoning and deduction and focus on metaphorical thinking. Their interest is not definition but discovery.”

Section One: The Rational Trap
The Creative Also Destroys * Deconstructing Leadership * Anatomy of Insecurity * Managers and Their Tools * The Corporate Way of Life * The Dictatorship of Time * Rules for Rationals * The Age of Adaptability * Living with Rational Management

Section Two: Philosophy of the Real 

Section Three: New World Disorders

Section Four: 
Restructuring Reality – The Dionysian Way

The People's Republic: Vermont & Bernie Sanders

A revealing look at the rise of Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement that changed Vermont

Available from Maverick Media

Mentioned during the 2016 Presidential campaign in...

Mother Jones: How Bernie Sanders Became a Real Politician
New York Times: Bernie Sanders' Revolutionary Roots
CNN: Can Bernie Sanders Win Black Voters?
Politico: 14 Things Bernie Has Said about Socialism
Politico: Bernie Sanders Has a Secret
Washington Post: Sanders is in with the enemy, so old allies say
CNN: How Bernie Sanders Turned Himself into a Serious Contender
Mother Jones: Here's How Bernie May Be Changing Politics for Good
Washington Post: Sanders Prepares for His National Debate Debut
New York Times: Setting Bernie Sanders Apart from the Debate Field
Mother Jones: Here's What Bernie Sanders is like as a Debater
CNN Video: What is Bernie Sanders' Debate Style?
ABC: What to Expect from Bernie Sanders in Tuesday's Debate
International Business Times: Bernie Sanders' Debate Plan
Washington Post: A Somewhat Reluctant Socialist

Bernie Sanders' election as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981 caught the attention of the entire nation and inspired progressives throughout the world. Originally published in 1989, just before Sanders won his first race for the US House of Representatives in 1990, The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution was the first comprehensive analysis of Sanders' mayoral years and the progressive movement in Vermont. It remains the most intimate and revealing. 

Greg Guma's exploration of the "revolution" goes far beyond Sanders and his impact on Burlington. The factors behind the initial surprise victory, the tension between leftist ideals and pragmatic politics, the evolution of an effective political coaliton outside the two-party system -- all these topics and more Guma investigates, with an eye on global political implications as well as the immediate local impact. The People's Republic is for all those interested in progressive politics and political history, not to mention those in places where a similar "revolution" is possible.

A fast-moving description that illustrates one of the great efforts at innovative government of the past fifty years…
--Pierre Clavel, Cornell University

If you were going to create somebody to write about Bernie Sanders’ years as socialist mayor of Burlington, you might make him a fortysomething Vermont journalist and bookstore founder and former government worker who almost ran for mayor of Burlington himself…That’s what you have in Greg Guma.
—Mark Satin, New Options

A treasure house of first-hand information and perceptive, if often controversial analysis of great value to anyone concerned to explore realistically the possibilities for combining third-party electoral politics with other methods of working for justice, peace, environmental sanity and genuine democracy.
– David Dellinger, author/activist

If you are at all interested in Vermont and Burlington, and public policy, get this book.
– Phil Hoff, former Vermont Governor

More Books from Maverick Media HERE 

Uneasy Empire
How an international establishment has used fear of socialism, communism and terrorism to justify repression and a massive military establishment. Pointing past nationalism and corporate empire, Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, and What We Can Do combines a radical critique with hopeful solutions and a vision of democratic globalism through which people can regain control of their futures.

Spirits of Desire
Set during the spirtualist craze of the 1870s, Spirits of Desire follows a group of extraordinary people, including Russian theosophist Helena Blavatsky, paranormal investigator Henry Olcott and Oneida Community leader Theo Noyes, as they search for the truth about ghosts through a notorious family of Vermont mediums. The trail leads them into a world of seances, deadly elementals, astral forces and past lives.

Dons of Time
Unsolved mysteries collide with cutting edge science and altered states of consciousness in a world of corporate gangsters, infamous crimes and top-secret experiments. Based on eyewitness accounts, suppressed documents and the lives of world-changers Nikola Tesla, Annie Besant, Ignatius Donnelly and Jack the Ripper, Dons of Time is a speculative adventure, a glimpse of an alternative future and a quantum leap to Gilded Age London at the tipping point of invention, revolution and murder.