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Washington’s abuser in chief

MOVE OVER, battered women! There’s a new syndrome in town. It’s called “battered Congress syndrome,” and it was first identified by Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. It’s strikingly like those of “battered women’s syndrome,” only the abusive partner is the Bush administration.

I know. You’re thinking, “Come on. Aren’t we talking about consenting Republicans here? Sure, there’s an occasional spat between Congress and the White House, but it’s just a minor domestic dispute. We shouldn’t interfere.” But that trivializes both the abuse and its broader societal ramifications.

Think back to 2000, when George W. Bush swore he was a “uniter, not a divider.” He seemed so sincere. So he was a little inarticulate? Nothing the love of a good Congress couldn’t fix. But honeymoons never last.

The abuse started small, with some minor infidelities to conservative principles, such as Bush’s insistence on federal micromanagement of education. Then there were the empty promises, such as the endless emergency “I swear I’ll never do this again” requests for supplemental funding. At times, Congress even got publicly slapped, like when administration officials simply walked out of a Senate hearing on mine safety.

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Still, Congress made excuses. What with 9/11 and Iraq, the White House was under so much stress. And our troops -- what would happen to them if Congress tightened the purse strings?

Anyway, it wasn’t as if the Republicans in Congress never got any flowers. What do you call those tax cuts?

But weakness and appeasement only escalate the abuse. Consider the White House’s practice of attaching “signing statements” to legislation when the president doesn’t feel like obeying a law. For instance, in 2005, Congress passed legislation requiring that “scientific information ... prepared by government researchers ... shall be transmitted [to Congress] uncensored and without delay.” The president said, “Sure, Honey!” and promised to sign the bill. But later, when no one was looking, he added a statement insisting that he could order researchers to withhold any information that might “impair ... the deliberative processes of the executive.”

The Constitution requires the president to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” If a president can’t live with a bill, he’s supposed to veto it, so everyone knows where he stands. But when a president quietly eviscerates legislation through signing statements -- something Bush has done to an eye-popping 750 statutes -- he evades accountability. It’s the political equivalent of the abusive spouse who takes care never to leave bruises that show.

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But the harm to democracy is just as real as the bruises left by a batterer’s fist. Through signing statements, the president has repeatedly signaled his contempt for Congress and his intention to flout the law on matters ranging from torture to the protection of executive-branch whistle-blowers.

And let’s not blame the victim. Victims stay in abusive relationships because their abusers isolate and manipulate them, cutting them off from those who might offer perspective and assistance. “Battered Congress syndrome” is no exception. Through its bullying foreign policy and its domestic incompetence, the administration has driven away practically everyone, at home and abroad, who might have been able to lend the Republican-controlled Congress a helping hand. And with the administration’s penchant for Orwellian “doublespeak” (it’s not “torture,” it’s “enhanced interrogation”), how can Congress keep any perspective on reality?

On Tuesday, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) finally made a courageous breakthrough: He acknowledged that Congress is caught in a potentially lethal cycle of abuse. Calling for hearings on the administration’s pattern of evading the law through signing statements, Specter acknowledged that if the White House’s “blatant encroachment” on congressional authority can’t be stopped, “there may as well soon not be a Congress.”

Admitting the problem is a crucial first step. Hearings are a start, but heck, why not a select committee to investigate possible basis for impeachment? Imagine it: Congress, co-dependent no more!

But the rest of us need to take a little responsibility too. I mean, we’re the ones who voted for these doormats. Let’s face it: We’ve become enablers.

That’s got to change. If the Republicans in Congress can’t escape from this tragic cycle of abuse by, say, Nov. 7, we need to give them a little bit of help.

Vote ‘em all out.


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