Balances on Blank Checks

Congressional action regarding the Bush administration's efforts to move quickly to fight a war on terrorism, so far, has been fair and sensible.

With renewed clarity and focus on eliminating a common enemy, the legislative and executive branches of government have discovered the virtues of cooperation. At the same time, Congress has shown its flexibility and ability to accommodate Bush administration requests, while still playing its proper role of raising constitutional questions.

Congressional scrutiny of the administration's surveillance-related proposals, for example, led to workable compromises on the Bush wish list of items needed to fight terrorists. Provisions for detaining immigrants suspected of terrorist connections for an unlimited period of time (trimmed back to seven days), or giving the FBI more leeway on "roving wiretaps," needed close examination.

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But pressures to quicken the pace of legislation to address what have been until now ongoing terrorist threats have their pitfalls, and Congress now must redouble its efforts to maintain its oversight role. (See story, page 1.) "We'll find that the nation, and its government, can't play constantly at the highest note on the scale, and that's really what a war footing is all about," says scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Balancing constitutional freedoms with the urgent need to identify possible terrorists will remain a tough issue. In the rush to act quickly, the balance of power among the three branches of government, so fundamental to America's democratic way of life, could tip. While governmental powers typically tilt toward the presidency during wartime, such tilting has not been permanent. Hence a thorny issue remains for Congress: how to extend traditional powers to the presidency in a war that seems open-ended?

Congress needs information, for instance, and the Bush administration would do well to continue to supply it, even in the midst of an obvious need for secrecy. That will take a lot of trust on both sides of the aisle and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Further, the administration must conscientiously work not to give in to the temptation to use the terrorist crisis to push forward some of its broader agenda items, in order to take advantage of the current public passion for unity and the president's high popularity ratings. Some on Capitol Hill are upset with the timing of the Bush team's renewed push for fast-track trade authority, for example, or hefty subsidies for private companies.

For its part, Congress should stay focused on the vital tasks at hand. Its role is to deliberate, not obfuscate, as the government moves to allocate more money to fight terrorism, support an expanded recovery effort, stimulate the nation's economy, and build an effective Office for Homeland Security.

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