The Cheney Branch of Government

The Cheney Branch of Government

On the same day that the CIA announced it will soon release hundreds
of pages of once-classified documents that detail some of the agency’s most
closely guarded — and controversial — secrets of old, it was revealed that
Vice President Dick Cheney has been resisting even his own Executive
Branch’s efforts to find out what kind of secret material his office has
been stashing away over the last four years.

Cheney’s office, according to a story first reported by the Chicago Tribune, has resisted attempts by a tiny federal agency to compile information — in accordance with an executive order signed by George Bush himself — on the classified documents being held by the Vice President’s operation. Cheney’s office argued that the Vice President’s office, because it has both executive and legislative branch duties, is exempt from the order.

Cheney’s dustup with the normally non-controversial National Archives and
Records Administration is the latest reminder that Cheney believes he
can play by his own rules. And it probably secures for Cheney a place alongside
Richard Nixon in the Washington pantheon of secret-keepers.

It is useful to tally up the ironies that
are piling up outside the Veep’s door. Cheney was chosen by Bush as a running mate in 2000 not
because he had any visible political assets but because he had no political
liabilities. He was believed to be just what Bush needed: a
chief operating officer who would give great advice, based on his years of
experience, and who, because he had no ambitions for his boss’s job, wouldn’t have his own agenda. But as it turned out, a lot of his advice, delivered privately,
has been poor — and some of it was calamitous. His political antennae are usually furled and
not very sensitive. And so rather than proving to be an asset with no
liabilities, he has turned out to be a liability with hard-to-identify

Yet Cheney remains quite powerful. That is at least partly because,
unlike other powerful figures who became liabilities in previous administrations,
there is no moving him along. You can’t fire him. You can’t reorganize
him into another job. You can’t compost him — and find someone to squeeze
in on top of him. And there is no evidence that Bush would if he could,
though just about every Republican I know privately wonders about this. One
former Bush adviser posed the question in a recent conversation: After Iraq,
does the President weigh Cheney’s advice in the same way

Cheney’s resistance to oversight by anyone — congressional
or executive — isn’t new. It dates to the mid-1970s, when a Democratic
Congress, emboldened by the excesses of Watergate, reined in the executive
branch in a variety of ways: imposing a new budget regimen on the Presidency, passing a war powers law that tied its hands overseas and holding
months of oversight hearings of agencies like the FBI and
CIA, which had run amok in the Nixon era.

If it sounds a little familiar, it is partly because many of the same
Democrats who were around in 1975 — David Obey, Henry Waxman and George
Miller — are now powerful players in the Democratic House who, for the
first time in 12 years, have subpoena power again.

It is a classic confrontation more than 30 years in the making, and it will continue until
the Bush era ends: One side is completely comfortable with using its
subpoena power against an executive branch, while the other is utterly
content to ignore it.