John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House counsel and no stranger to ruthless political maneuvering, noted, “This administration has been stiff-arming Congress.” On homeland security issues, the administration has been reluctant to give information to members of Congress, and even when the information was shared privately, the administration has refused to declassify it so legislators can publicly discuss it.
That has led some members of Congress to complain that what they have learned in private has contradicted what the president says in public—but that they can’t use what they know to engage the debate. When the General Accounting Office—the investigative arm of Congress—asked for records of Vice President Cheney’s task force, the administration refused. As Dean argued, “not since Richard Nixon stiffed the Congress during Watergate has a White House so openly, and arrogantly, defied Congress’s investigative authority.”
Many of the administration’s key members, especially Cheney and Rumsfeld, had previously served in Washington. They came to the Bush White House convinced that the balance of power had shifted much too far toward Congress. They were determined to shift that balance back toward the president, even if it meant ruffling congressional feathers. They thought that Congress was engaging in too much pork-barrel spending, which resulted in an out-of-control budget. They believed that too many national security secrets were leaking out of Capitol Hill. They were convinced that dealing with the new breed of national problems, especially terrorism, required a strong and effective president.
So the administration continued to play it tough. In the summer of 2002, congressional appropriators bundled money for homeland defense together with other items, including some the administration did not want. Bush’s budget director Mitch Daniels argued that the spending was too much, so the president vetoed the entire bill—including money to improve the FBI’s computer system and to enhance aid for Afghanistan. Bush agreed. “This isn’t about spending,” one senior administration official explained. “This is about control.”
In politics, balance is key. Team Bush struggled to find just the right balance in the legislative-executive branch relationship, so delicately fashioned by the framers of the Constitution and ever shifting in practice. The president worked to provide just the right amount of stroking to keep a coalition together, but his aides did not hesitate to use a heavy hand when they thought the balance was off. They knew this might cost them some victories, but they were convinced their ultimate success—and the nation’s welfare—required wresting power away from Capitol Hill in favor of the executive branch.