Probes of Clinton Have Caused a Squeezing of the Presidency
As lawyers haggle over whether Clinton will testify in Lewinsky matter, scholars say investigations weaken the presidency.
WASHINGTON — The enduring investigations into the conduct of President Clinton are leaving an indelible mark on the presidency that could impact chief executives for years to come.
While many experts believe the institution is resilient enough to survive, others argue that - intended or not - the cumulative impact of the probes is to undermine the ability of a chief executive to govern effectively.
Indeed, Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University in Washington, now believes that the effect on the executive branch is worse than at any other time in history - including Watergate. "The real significance of all this goes way beyond Bill Clinton and [special prosecutor] Ken Starr," says Mr. Lichtman. "It erodes not just the power of the presidency, but the effectiveness of the presidency."
Even some Republicans are worried about the precedents being set in courtrooms and judicial chambers. "It's something I've thought about a lot," says Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee, a potential presidential candidate. "I'm troubled by a lot of these things."
Still, Senator Thompson, like many other Republicans and critics of Mr. Clinton, also believes the probes are warranted and that much of the dimmunition of power will affect only Clinton. "He's brought an awful lot of things on himself," Thompson says. "He's done some things that have weakened the institution, and I don't know if it's permanent or not."
The court decisions that have hampered executive authority during Clinton's tenure include a Supreme Court ruling that allows a sitting president to be sued, a decision that Secret Service agents can be forced to testify about the man they guard, and restrictions on attorney-client privilege with government lawyers.
"To open any presidency up to nonstop investigation has a corrosive effect on the institution over time," says White House spokesman Mike McCurry.
The relative power of the executive branch has been a much-studied subject since the founding fathers penned the Constitution. Historians credit President Richard Nixon with strengthening the presidency institutionally, with his theory of a powerful executive exercising supremacy over other branches of government.
While that philosophical focus was in many ways undermined by Watergate, the notion of a powerful executive has ingrained itself into the institutional framework and popular consciousness.
Not coincidentally, the independent counsel also emerged during the Nixon era. But given the impact it has had, its renewal next year is uncertain, and modification is likely.
"There is a more subtle appreciation for the dangers that an institution like the independent counsel ... poses to our fragile constitutional separation of powers," points out Viet Dinh, a professor at Georgetown School of Law, who served as an investigator during the Senate Whitewater hearings.
Indeed, Thompson hints that Congress may take up legislation next year that would shield Secret Service agents from testifying as well as protect a president from civil suits.
Some observers, however, don't see a significant erosion in the powers of the presidency. They say that the constant seesawing of power between the executive and the legislative branches in a divided government is natural. Whether the additional scrutiny of an independent counsel weakens the executive is unknown.
"Does this process move faster and does it presage any weakness of the presidency? It's hard for people to agree on," says Richard Brody, professor emeritus of political science at Stanford University in California. "Most ... historians agree the power of the presidency has increased more than other branches of government across the 20th century."