Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Abdication of Authority

James Skillen


September 28, 1998

Governing by the polls. That's what it has come to.

It was bad enough when election campaigning succumbed to poll reading, but to make governing subservient to daily opinion polls represents the abdication of authority.

No president has used opinion sampling more than Bill Clinton to guide both his official decision making and his responses to disclosures about misconduct, sexual and otherwise. One reason the president did not admit to and apologize earlier for his affair with Monica Lewinsky is that the opinion polls showed high approval ratings.

Now Congress is following suit. Whatever you think of the validity and relevance of Kenneth Starr's findings, his report to Congress is just that, a report that puts responsibility for decision making in congressional hands. Congress is charged by the Constitution to decide whether to impeach a public official for high crimes and misdemeanors. Congress, not the people! Congress, using its best deliberative judgment should decide.

Do Bill Clinton's lies and obfuscations add up to impeachable offenses? That is for Congress to determine by carefully weighing the evidence, including secret grand-jury testimony. But what did our national lawmaking body do before deciding whether to proceed with impeachment proceedings, before even beginning to weigh the evidence in a judicious way, before even receiving judgment from its judiciary committee? It released all this secretly gathered testimony to the public.

Why? Why, if so many members of Congress believe that the president's behavior was reprehensible, would they release tons of unedited, salacious documents and the video tape of the president's grand jury testimony to be broadcast everywhere, to young and old alike? Because too many members of Congress don't want to do what the Constitution has charged them to do. Before they act, they want to know the percentage of the public that believes impeachment is proper. They don't want to proceed until they have time to calculate their odds of getting reelected in November and of gaining an advantage in the run-up to the 2000 presidential election.

What will the opinion polls tell them? On what basis will the public frame its opinions about the president's actions? The polls will tell them one thing today, another thing two weeks from now, and something else a month later. And those opinions will be based on hearsay, on reading snippets of released documents, and on what strikes them most in the pictures and stories they see on television or read in their favorite news magazine.

It would be one thing for members of Congress to campaign for reelection on the grounds that Clinton should resign. It would be one thing for Democratic members simply to take distance from the president when campaigning. But in their offices as legislators, not as election campaigners, they have a duty to make decisions based on constitutional criteria and principles of justice. If they abdicate that responsibility by dragging out this whole process longer and longer, letting the ever-shifting polls take the lead, they are committing a grave offense that will only further weaken government and respect for it.

What are we left with? Opinion poll mongering and the continuing refusal to exercise the obligations of one's office. The president shirked responsibility by claiming that Starr's investigation was unfair and that public opinion supported him. Many members of Congress are, in effect, saying that the public's response to Starr's report should determine the outcome of their proceedings. The office of the presidency has been tarnished by Bill Clinton. Sadly, Congress's response to his mistakes only compounds the disgrace.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”