WASHINGTON – Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin and fellow members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, flexed their constitutional muscle in voting Thursday to authorize the use of subpoenas in a investigation into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
“I hope the subpoenas will not have to be exercised,” Cardin said, “but the United States Senate has a responsibility to get the facts.”
In late 2006, eight U.S. attorneys: David C. Iglesias, Daniel G. Bogden, Paul K. Charlton, Bud Cummins, Carol S. Lam, John McKay, Margaret Chiara and Kevin V. Ryan were fired despite largely positive performance evaluations and while leading public corruption investigations. Democrats in Congress have been dissatisfied with the explanations provided by the White House and the Department of Justice, and is looking for answers.
This issue is important to the eight attorneys who were fired, to Congress and to the American people, Cardin said.
The larger constitutional issue is that Congress has a responsibility to use its checks and balances to control the power of the president, Cardin said.
“We’ve already heard from fired U.S. Attorneys themselves,” Cardin said. “Now we need to hear from those responsible for firing them.”
On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee gave similar subpoena power to its chairman in hopes of getting testimony from administration officials involved in the firings.
The Senate, like the House, is rebuffing the president’s offer to provide top aides, including White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, for a closed-door discussion of the firings, albeit with a specific set of questions and not under oath.
The Senate Judiciary Committee tried informal meetings with Gonzales and still were unable to obtain the information they sought, Cardin said. After they were over everyone had a different version of the events.
The issue strikes at the core of the independence of the U.S. attorneys and whether they were dismissed for political reasons, Cardin said.
“Now that Democrats are in charge of Congress, we should expect to see more of this,” said Adam Sheingate, political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.
In a divided government with the Congress and White House controlled by different political parties, you will see more instances of conflict, Sheingate said. “Both sides are trying to protect their prerogatives.”
The Bush administration has been tepid in its support of Gonzales, and analysts say his job may be in jeopardy.
“The question here is who’s going to blink first?” Sheingate said, adding since this is the first real clash since the November election, how far each side is willing to push remains unclear.
When looking at the greater constitutional context it should be noted that the courts are generally unwilling to curb executive power unless the issue is clear cut, Sheingate said, if this goes to the Supreme Court, a decision would likely fall in the president’s favor.