It's the big issue in coming election

David Hoppe

The announcement last week that Kris Kiser, an Irvington lawyer who once worked for Lee Hamilton, will challenge five-term Congresswoman Julia Carson in this May's Democratic primary drew little more than a collective sigh from local media. Carson, known simply as Julia to most of her constituents, is a legendary figure in these parts. Given our Hoosier preference for incumbents (think Lugar, Bayh and Burton), the assumption seems to be that the only issue that might cause Julia to lose her Seventh District seat pertains to the questionable state of her health. This is an issue, by the way, that she is quick to dismiss.

But there's another issue at stake in this year's congressional election. It's an issue voters should insist that candidates address, even when the candidates have records as distinguished as Julia Carson's. That issue is the presidency of George W. Bush.

Today, even many of the president's supporters find themselves in the awkward position of having to make excuses for what has become a pattern of false promises, ill-conceived projects and inept performance.

And then there is the war in Iraq. Not to mention the cavalier assumptions regarding presidential powers that have raised serious questions about criminal conduct.

In December, Congresswoman Carson's colleague from Michigan, John Conyers, issued a 273-page report outlining forms of misconduct the Bush Administration engaged in leading up to and since the Iraq war. Conyers writes: "I have found that there is substantial evidence the President, Vice President and other high-ranking members of the Bush Administration misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq; misstated and manipulated intelligence information regarding the justification for such a war; countenanced torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in Iraq; and permitted inappropriate retaliation against critics of their Administration."

Conyers goes on to say that a case can be made that these actions by the President and Vice President violate a number of federal laws, including fraud against the United States, making false statements to Congress, misuse of government funds, the breaking of international treaties and the failure to enforce federal laws and regulations. Then, as his report was finalized, the news broke that the President had ordered the National Security Agency to engage in wiretapping without obtaining court approval in apparent violation of the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act.

These could be "high crimes and misdemeanors," or grounds for impeachment - a process that begins in the House of Representatives.

Conyers wants to conduct an investigation into these matters similar to the investigation Sam Ervin headed over the Nixon Administration's Watergate scandal in the 1970s. But House Republicans, in collusion with the White House, have blocked his ability to gather relevant information. Conyers believes that this stonewalling warrants censure by Congress and has introduced resolutions to do that.

Conyers concludes that while his report is limited largely to Iraq, "I believe it holds lessons for our nation at a time of entrenched one-party rule and abuse of power in Washington. If the present administration is willing to break the law in order to achieve political objectives in Iraq, and Congress is unwilling to confront or challenge their hegemony, many of our cherished democratic principles are in jeopardy."

In the past few weeks, representatives of President Bush, including Vice President Cheney and Attorney General Gonzales have asserted that, in wartime, the law is whatever the President says it is. Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has told the National Press Club that the War on Terror, now officially renamed The Long War, will probably last decades. The groundwork for an imperial presidency - a president above the law - has been established.

Unless, that is, the House of Representatives will pass Conyers' motion to censure and insist on an investigation into wrongdoing. Whether or not this leads to the drafting of a bill of impeachment is almost beside the point. The real issue has to do with Congress standing up for the constitutional separation of powers and putting the brakes on an executive branch that is out of control.

Carson already has a significant record on this issue - first, by courageously dissenting and voting against the resolution giving the President the power to make war in 2003, and then, last June, by signing a letter drafted by Conyers calling for congressional investigation into information revealed in the Downing Street Minutes, a document that indicates the Bush Administration manipulated intelligence to make its case for war.

Mr. Kiser, on the other hand, has said nothing about the gathering storm in the House, preferring instead to limit himself to generalities about the importance of education and his opposition to tax cuts for the rich.

Between now and the primary in May, voters need to demand that both candidates make it absolutely clear about whether or not they are prepared to stand with John Conyers in his fight to call the Bush Administration to account. If ever there was a litmus test, this is it.