Video: Executive power grows as accountability declines

“I think presidents are basically like great white sharks,” says Chris Edelson in this look from Reason at the expansion of presidential power over the course of our republic — and especially over the last dozen years or so. Edelson sees the track record of Barack Obama as “ironic,” considering his background as a constitutional-law lecturer, but the irony train left the station years ago.

“Obama is doing many of the same dangerous things that Bush did,” says Chris Edelson, assistant professor at American University, referencing what he considers President Obama’s broad interpretation of executive power. He points to Obama’s unilateral military intervention in Libya and his defense of the National Security Agency’s data collection on American citizens as just two examples of executive over-reach.

“What’s ironic about that is Obama is a constitutional lawyer and scholar by background.”

However, President Obama is not the first president to expand the powers of the presidency. Edelson explains the historical precedents of expansive executive power in his new book, Emergency Presidential Powers: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror.

As we’d expect from Reason and Nick Gillespie, the video takes a scholarly approach to the issue, but it’s still a fascinating discussion that takes a close look at the present. That’s certainly the case with Obama’s assertion of executive power when he waged war on Libya, but it’s not just limited to war, either. Gitmo comes up, but so does unilateral changes to ObamaCare, and other regulatory policies as well.

So what allows this accumulation and abuse of power? A lack of accountability — or worse, faux-countability, argues Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post today. Marcus uses ObamaCare as an example, too — but also Benghazi:

Hold me accountable for the debacle,” Sebelius declared in October. “I’m responsible.” Nice sentiment. But this is non-accountable accountability, an assertion devoid of content. Accountability is meaningless without consequences attached.

Of course, the ultimate responsibility rests with President Obama, who failed to adequately oversee implementation. But the conundrum of presidential accountability is that the chief executive can’t fire himself.

Benghazi offers an example of both lack of accountability and faux-countability. As Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) pointed out in comments filed with the Senate intelligence committee report, the attack was preventable, yet no one has been disciplined for failing to prevent it. Collins singled out Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, who testified that the threat environment in Benghazi was “flashing red” yet failed to ensure that a facility he approved there had adequate security.

If the State Department were a corporation, heads would have rolled.

But if you want to know why faux-countability works, just proceed to the next two paragraphs:

But politics being politics, most Republicans engaged in a bid for over-accountability, focusing on — wonder why — former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. “She was responsible for ensuring the safety of all Americans serving in our diplomatic facilities,” six Republican members of the Senate intelligence committee wrote in the report. “Her failure to do so clearly made a difference in the lives of the four murdered Americans and their families.” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) went further. “Under her leadership, the consulate became a death trap,” he told CNN.

Yet the report, like previous investigations, offered no evidence that Clinton was aware of security concerns in Libya. Contrast the preparation for Obamacare, which was, or should have been, at the center of Sebelius’s concerns, with the issue of embassy security. That is certainly an important and tragically neglected topic, yet not one fair to tag Clinton with, given the array of issues on the secretarial plate.

Well, who exactly was in charge at State? Obama may have ultimate responsibility for State’s performance, but Clinton was the chief executive of the organization itself. If she’s not concerned about the issues of facility security (Benghazi was not an embassy) when the facility is in the middle of a failed state and her good friend Chris Stevens had to work there, it’s not all that surprising that her close aide Patrick Kennedy didn’t think it was terribly important, either. CIA and the Pentagon had been warning for months that the lights were flashing red around Benghazi. It’s not like the Libya adventure was a minor issue for the Obama administration — it was central to how they thought American power should be projected in the “responsibility to protect” paradigm, a key concept for foreign policy in this administration, which nearly sent us to war again in Syria. If Clinton didn’t closely watch this Obama administration priority, then it demonstrates a significant level of incompetence.

Accountability is a good check on power, but only when everyone gets held accountable.