OK, so George Bush is going to defy Congressional subpoenas in the investigation into the dismissal of the eight U.S. Attorneys.
What does that mean? The quickest way to address that right now is to re-run a post on the subject from early December:
[L]et's look at the mechanics of subpoena power. In its investigative capacity, Congress has adopted for itself the use of a subpoena power that's roughly analogous to that more commonly seen in the judicial and law enforcement system, in which government prosecutors (employees of the executive branch) leverage the power of the judicial branch (in the form of its ability to sentence those brought before it for contempt, should they defy the subpoenas) to ensure compliance with the demands made.
But Congress is not the executive branch. Nor is it the judicial. Its independent enforcement powers are limited to only the most obscure and archaic procedure -- "inherent contempt" -- which hasn't been exercised since 1935, and with good reason: this procedure itself requires a trial before Congress. Not a particularly helpful substitute when you're trying to avoid a trial before Congress [read: impeachment] in the first place.
Instead, Congress depends for its enforcement powers on the executive branch. If you defy a Congressional subpoena, you face the possibility of charges of contempt of Congress, pursuant to the adoption of articles by whichever house is charging you. But those charges are not self-executing. In other words, they're a request that charges be brought. In order to be effective, those charges still have to be prosecuted in court, and that's up to the discretion of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. He's an employee of the "unitary executive," of course, and reports to the Attorney General.
So if you're conducting oversight of, say, the NSA spying program, and you want answers from Gonzales regarding the program's legality, and you subpoena him and he tells you to take a flying leap, what do you do?
You could try going to court, but not only will that pretty much run out the clock, but the courts are quite likely to tell you, "What are you crying to us for? You have your remedy. If you're too chicken to use it, that's your problem." They may well hand it right back to Congress as a "political question," and refuse to resolve it. After all, tied up in that question is yet another: should the legislative branch be able to leverage the judicial in order to force the executive to submit to its will?
Long story short: This is not an issue that can be resolved on moral, ethical, legal, or political grounds alone. It can be ignored for any or all of those reasons, but not resolved.
That's some game, eh? Enforcement of the contempt power falls to the U.S. Attorneys -- the political strong-arming and contamination of which brought us to this crisis in the first place. Heck, you'd almost think they... planned it.
[W]hen it comes to deploying its Executive power, which is dear to Bush's understanding of the presidency, the President's team has been planning for what one strategist describes as "a cataclysmic fight to the death" over the balance between Congress and the White House if confronted with congressional subpoenas it deems inappropriate. The strategist says the Bush team is "going to assert that power, and they're going to fight it all the way to the Supreme Court on every issue, every time, no compromise, no discussion, no negotiation."
Realize that the resolution of this stand-off will determine the extent to which the Congress is able to investigate everything that's still on their plate. If they lose this showdown, they lose their leverage in investigating NSA spying, the DeLay/Abramoff-financed Texas redistricting, Cheney's Energy Task Force, the political manipulation of science, the Plame outing... everything.
And that's why Bush is playing it this way. Remember, too, that his "administration" is populated by Watergate and Iran-Contra recidivists, chief among them Dick Cheney, who has wanted to relitigate the boundaries of executive power since forever. Cheney and others on the inside believe that this time, with a friendlier judiciary, these issues can be decided the "right" way, overturning the victories won against Richard Nixon's insane theories of executive power.
Their thinking is that they'll either win it in courts, or run out the clock trying.
And the day they get five Justices to say they're right, everything you thought you knew about checks and balances becomes wrong.
Extra credit reading: Prof. Mark Tushnet's "Constitutional Hardball" (huge PDF).