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Originally published Friday, January 1, 2010 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

Impeachment: Congress must use this tool to keep high officials in check

Employing the power of impeachment could restore congressional authority in the face of growing abuse of power by the nation's executive branch, writes guest columnist David Swanson.

Special to the Times

FOR 220 years, power has moved from Congress, courts, states and the people to the presidency, a trend that has taken giant steps during the Bush and Obama years. Presidents rewrite laws with signing statements or create them with executive orders. They make treaties with occupied governments and no Senate consent. They spend money in secret. They launch and escalate military actions at will.

They spy without warrants and imprison without charges. They grant immunity for criminal offenses.

The height of congressional push-back came in 2007-2008, when Congress was Democratic and the president Republican. And by "height" I mean to suggest more of a molehill than a mountain. During that two-year period, dozens of top officials who refused to comply were subpoenaed by congressional committees.

With one partial exception, those efforts have been abandoned in 2009. No one has been subpoenaed in the current Congress and during the tenure of the new Justice Department.

One official who did comply with congressional committees in 2007 was then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — if you consider appearing and professing not to recall virtually anything to constitute compliance.

Gonzales would almost certainly not have resigned had Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, not taken a stronger step. Inslee made use of a tool the House of Representatives has wielded to restrain the abuses of the executive branch for centuries. It's a tool that has been used far more often than is widely understood, a tool that usually achieves justice without ever having to be fully employed. Its name is impeachment.

Here is the full text of a bill Inslee introduced:

"Resolved, That the Committee on the Judiciary shall investigate fully whether sufficient grounds exist for the House of Representatives to impeach Alberto R. Gonzales, Attorney General of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors."

This bill quickly picked up 30 co-sponsors, and during summer recess 2007 gathered numerous commitments to co-sponsor upon Congress' return. That never became necessary, as Gonzales resigned.

An impeachment hearing gets anything it asks for. Information cannot be denied without risking presidential impeachment for that denial. Presidents stand to lose if their subordinates are impeached for abuses authorized by presidents.

And yet, does the public not still have a right and a need to know what crimes were committed, even after an elected official has resigned?

There are precedents for impeaching officials post-resignation, but doing so would require educating the public about that possibility. And there are elected officials still in high offices who cry out for impeachment and removal.

When Gonzales was White House counsel, he asked the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to produce memos authorizing the gravest of abuses, including aggressive war. These and other OLC memos were treated as legal authorizations of wars and war crimes, including torture. The worst were signed by the then head of the OLC Jay Bybee.

Bybee is now a federal judge with a lifetime seat on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Washington state. His impeachment or resignation has been urged by congressional members, newspapers and activist groups. But not a single subpoena has been issued from any committee, and no one has yet introduced a bill like Inslee's with the name Jay Bybee substituted for Alberto Gonzales.

Doing so would pressure the Justice Department to follow the law and restore power to our representatives in Congress.

David Swanson will be speaking Jan. 5th at 7:30 p.m. at Seattle's Town Hall about his book "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union."

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