The Scandals and the Unwritten Constitution | | 05.29.13

All the talk about the IRS targeting conservative for audits and the Department of Justice hacking into the email files of the Associated Press is disturbing enough.  But it may be only the start.

Reports have been circulating in the past week that other agencies have engaged in similarly aggressive behavior towards administration critics.  The Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission – all have been mentioned in the local scuttlebutt as having targeted conservatives, sometimes, some suggest, appears in coordination.

If even a few of these reports prove true, it will become hard for the White House to maintain that there was no concerted campaign.  Already the reports of multiple IRS offices simultaneously launching parallel investigations, as well as of the number and timing of the commissioner’s meetings in the White House, have made laughable the idea that at fault were only a few marauding minor minions in a remote (whatever that means in this wired age) IRS office.

As details accumulate, Congressional investigators will want to move up the line.  Who initiated and coordinated the campaign within each agency?  How was coordination with other agencies achieved?  Coordination surely came from a central source, likely but not necessarily within the White House.

Could the coordinating officer have been Attorney-General Holder, perhaps chairing a committee of cabinet officers?  Could it have been David Axelrod at the reelect campaign, chairing a group of political operatives distributed through the federal establishment?  Or someone else?

Whoever it was, it would need to be someone with sufficient seniority to give all parties confidence that such an edgy operation enjoyed the backing at the highest levels of the administration.  Bear in mind that the term “highest levels” does not necessarily or even likely mean the president.  It simply suggests a council of senior staffers who would have been presumed to carry the full weight of the administration.

I say council because, while such an operation would require an action officer, unless the president was directly involved (which strikes me as improbable), a group within the senior staff would have been needed to bless the enterprise, even as they remained at a distance from its actual execution.

As reports have accumulated, we have heard calls for firings or resignations.  Don’t hold your breath.  The president has a reputation for throwing inconvenient people under the bus.  Is he really going to jettison Mr. Holder or Valerie Jarrett?

Yet, that such speculation is circulating shows were the administration stands at this moment. Half a year past a reelection, this town is aswirl with “what did he know and when did he know it.”  But like fighting the last war, shouting Watergate is pursuing the last scandal (or at least the modern archetype for scandal).

It remains to be seen if laws were broken.  It is entirely possible none was.  But our nation has an unwritten as well as a written constitution – understood norms to limits in action and intent.   These unwritten limits have become more essential as our government has growth larger and more powerful.  They are how separation of powers and the protection of liberties have been maintained even as, in the name of helping all, our government has developed the capacity to crush any one of us.

The one thing we know for certain at this point is that, after five years in office, the administration has displayed no appreciation for that unwritten constitution or for the price all of us will pay if it is swept aside.

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