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Albert Gore and George W. Bush during a televised debate in 2000

Click here to read the first part of the Speech by Al Gore in Washington

This same instinct to expand power and establish dominance has characterized the relationship between this administration and the courts and the Congress. In a properly functioning system, the judicial branch would serve as the constitutional umpire to ensure that the branches of government observe their proper spheres of authority, observed civil liberties, adhere to the rule of law.

The Supreme Court in Alliance with the Executive

Unfortunately, the unilateral executive has tried hard to thwart the ability of the judiciary to call balls and strikes by keeping controversies out of its hands, notably those challenging its ability to detain individuals without legal process by appointing judges who will be deferential to its exercise of power and by its support of assaults on the independence of the third branch.

The president’s decision, for example, to ignore the FISA law was a direct assault on the power of the judges who sit on that court. Congress established the FISA Court precisely to be a check on executive power to wiretap.

And yet, to ensure that the court could not function as a check on executive power, the president simply did not take matters to it. And did not even let the court know that it was being bypassed.

The president’s judicial appointments are clearly designed to ensure the courts will not will not serve as an effective check on executive power. As we have all learned, Judge Alito is a long-time supporter of a powerful executive, a supporter of that so-called unitary executive.

Whether you support his confirmation or not — and I respect the fact that some of the co-sponsors of this event do; I do not — but whatever your view, we must all agree...

... that he will not vote as an effective check on the expansion of executive power. Likewise, Chief Justice Roberts has made plain his deference to the expansion of executive power through his support of judicial deference to executive agency rulemaking.

And the administration has also supported the assault on judicial independence that has been conducted largely in Congress. That assault includes a threat by the majority in the Senate to permanently change the rules to eliminate the right of the minority to engage in extended debate of the president’s nominees.

The assault has extended to legislative efforts to curtail the jurisdiction of the courts in matters ranging from habeas corpus to the pledge of allegiance.

In short, the administration has demonstrated a contempt for the judicial role and sought to evade judicial review of its actions at every turn.

Corruption in Congress

But the most serious damage in our constitutional framework has been to the legislative branch.

The sharp decline of Congressional power and autonomy in recent years has been almost as shocking as the efforts by the executive to attain this massive expansion of its power.

I was elected to the Congress in 1976. Served eight years in the House, eight in the Senate, presided over the Senate for eight as vice president.

Before that, as a young man, I saw the Congress firsthand as the son of a senator. My father was elected to Congress in 1938 — 10 years before I was born — and left the Senate after I had graduated from college.

The Congress we have today is structurally unrecognizable compared to the one in which my father served.

There are many distinguished and outstanding senators and congressmen serving today. I am honored to know them and to have worked with them.

But the legislative branch of government as a whole, under its current leadership, now operates as if it were entirely subservient to the executive branch.

It is astonishing to me and so foreign to what the Congress is supposed to be.

Moreover, too many members of the House and Senate now feel compelled to spend a majority of their time not in thoughtful debate on the issues but, instead, raising money to purchase 30-second television commercials.

Moreover, there have now been two or three generations of congressmen who don’t really know what an oversight hearing is.

In the ’70s and ’80s, the oversight hearings in which my colleagues and I participated held the feet of the executive branch to the fire no matter which party was in power.

And, yet, oversight is almost unknown in the Congress today.

The role of the authorization committees has declined into insignificance.

The 13 annual appropriations bills are hardly ever actually passed as bills anymore. Often, everything is lumped into a familiar single giant measure that sometimes is not even available for members of Congress to even read before they vote on it.

Members of the minority party are now routinely excluded from conference committees, and amendments are routinely disallowed during floor consideration of legislation.

In the United States Senate, which used to pride itself on being the greatest deliberative body in the world, meaningful debate is now a rarity.

Even on the eve of the fateful vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq, Senator Robert Byrd famously asked, “Why is this chamber empty?”

In the House of Representatives, the number who face a genuinely competitive election contest every two years is typically less than a dozen out of 435.

And too many incumbents have come to believe that the key to continued access to the money for re-election is to stay on the good side of those who have the money to give.

And, in the case of the majority party, the whole process is largely controlled by the incumbent president and his political organization. So the willingness of Congress to challenge the executive branch is further limited when the same party controls both Congress and the administration.

The executive branch time and again has co-opted Congress’ role. And too often Congress has been a willing accomplice in the surrender of its own power.

Look, for example, at the congressional role in overseeing this massive, four-year eavesdropping campaign that, on its face, seemed so clearly to violate the Bill of Rights.

The president says he informed Congress. What he really means is that he talked with the chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate intelligence committees and, sometimes, the leaders of the House and Senate.

This small group, in turn, claims they were not given the full facts, though at least one of the committee leaders handwrote a letter of concern to the vice president.

And, though I sympathize with the awkward position, the difficult position in which these men and women were placed, I cannot disagree with the Liberty Coalition when it says that Democrats as well as Republicans in the Congress must share the blame for not taking sufficient action to protest and seek to prevent what they consider a grossly unconstitutional program.

Many did. Moreover, in the Congress as a whole, both House and Senate, the enhanced role of money in the re-election process, coupled with the sharply diminished role for reasoned deliberation and debate, has produced an atmosphere conducive to pervasive institutionalized corruption that some have fallen vulnerable to.

The Abramoff scandal is but the tip of a giant iceberg threatening the integrity of our legislative branch of government.

And it is the pitiful state of our legislative state which primarily explains the failure of our vaunted checks and balances to prevent the dangerous overreach by the executive branch now threatening a radical transformation of the American system.

I call upon members of Congress in both parties to uphold your oath of office and defend the Constitution. Stop going along to get along. Start acting like the independent and co-equal branch of American government that you are supposed to be under the Constitution of our country.

Final responsibility is that of the people

But there is yet another player. There is yet another constitutional player whose faults must also be taken and whose role must be examined in order to understand the dangerous imbalance that has accompanied these efforts by the executive branch to dominate our constitutional system.

We the people, collectively, are still the key to the survival of America’s democracy. We must examine ourselves. We, as Lincoln put it, even we here must examine our own role as citizens in allowing and not preventing the shocking decay and hollowing out and degradation of American democracy.

It’s time to stand up for the American system that we know and love.

It is time to breathe new life back into America’s democracy.

Thomas Jefferson said, “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.”

America is based on the belief that we can govern ourselves and exercise the power of self-government.

The American idea proceeded from the bedrock principle that all just power is derived from the consent of the governed. The intricate and finally balanced system, now in such danger, was created with the full and widespread participation of the population as a whole.

The Federalist Papers were, back in the day, widely read newspaper essays. And they represented only one of 24 series of essays that crowded the vibrant marketplace of ideas in which farmers and shopkeepers recapitulated the debates that played out so fruitfully in Philadelphia.

And when the convention had done its best, it was the people in their various states that refused to confirm the result until, at their insistence, the Bill of Rights was made integral to the documents sent forward for ratification.

And it is we the people who must now find once again the ability we once had to play an integral role in saving our Constitution.

And here there is cause for both concern and for great hope. The age of printed pamphlets and political essays has long since been replaced by television, a distracting and absorbing medium which seems determined to entertain itself more than it informs and educates.

Lincoln’s memorable call during the Civil War is now applicable in a new way to our present dilemma: “We must disenthrall ourselves,” he said, “and then we shall save our country.”

The degradation of public debate

Forty years has passed since the majority of Americans adopted television as their principal source of information. And its dominance has now become so extensive that virtually all significant political communication now takes place within the confines of flickering 30-second advertisements, and they’re not The Federalist Papers.

The political economy, supported by these short but expensive television ads, is as different from the vibrant politics of America’s first century as those politics were different from the feudalism which thrived on the ignorance of the masses of people in the Dark Ages.

The constricted role of ideas in the American political system today has encouraged efforts by the executive branch to believe it can and should control the flow of information as a means of controlling the outcome of important decisions that still lie in the hands of the people.

The administration vigorously asserts its power to maintain secrecy in its operations. After all, if the other branches don’t know what’s happening, they can’t be a check or a balance.

For example, when the administration was attempting to persuade Congress to enact the Medicare prescription drug benefit, many in the House and Senate raised concerns about the cost and design of the program.

But rather than engaging in open debate on the basis of factual data, the administration withheld facts and actively prevented the Congress from hearing testimony that it had sought from the principal administration expert who had the information showing in advance of the vote that indeed the true cost estimates were far beyond the numbers given to Congress by the president. And the workings of the program would play out very differently than Congress had been told.

Deprived of that information, and believing the false numbers given to it, instead the Congress approved the program — and, tragically, the entire initiative — is now collapsing all over the country, with the administration making an appeal just this weekend asking major insurance companies to volunteer to bail it out.

But the American people, who have a right to believe that its elected representatives will learn the truth and act on the basis of knowledge and utilize the rule of reason, have been let down.

To take another example, scientific warnings about the catastrophic consequences of unchecked global warming were censored by a political appointee in the White House with no scientific training whatsoever.

Today one of the most distinguished scientific experts in the world on global warming, who works in NASA, has been ordered not to talk to members of the press; ordered to keep a careful log of everyone he meets with so that the executive branch can monitor and control what he shares of his knowledge about global warming.

This is a planetary crisis. We owe ourselves a truthful and reasoned discussion.

Fear used as a tool

One of the other ways the administration has tried to control the flow of information has been by consistently resorting to the language and politics of fear in order to short-circuit the debate and drive its agenda forward without regard to the evidence or the public interest.

President Eisenhower said this: “Any who act as if freedom’s defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America.”

Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction. Justice Brandeis once wrote, “Men feared witches and burnt women.”

The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk. Yet in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the full Bill of Rights.

Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol?

Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of nuclear missiles ready to be launched on a moment’s notice to completely annihilate the country?

Is America really in more danger now than when we faced worldwide fascism on the march, when the last generation had to fight and win two world wars simultaneously?

It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they did.

And yet they faithfully protected our freedom and now it’s up to us to do the very same thing.

We have a duty as Americans to defend out citizens’ rights not only to life but also to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It is therefore vital in our current circumstances that immediate steps be taken to safeguard our Constitution against the present danger posed by the intrusive overreaching on the part of the executive branch and the president’s apparent belief that he need not live under the rule of law.

I endorse the words of Bob Barr when he said, and I quote, “The president has dared the American people to do something about it. For the sake of the Constitution, I hope they will.”

Five propositions to re-establish democracy

A special counsel should be immediately appointed by the attorney general to remedy these obvious conflicts of interest that prevents them from investigating what many believe are serious violations of law by the president.

We’ve had a fresh demonstration of how an independent investigation by a special council with integrity can rebuild confidence in our system of justice.

Patrick Fitzgerald has, by all accounts, has shown neither fear nor favor in pursuing allegations that the executive branch has violated other laws.

Republican as well as Democratic members of Congress should support the bipartisan call of the Liberty Coalition for the appointment of this special counsel to pursue the criminal issues raised by the warrantless wiretapping of Americans by the president. And it should be a political issue in any race, regardless of party, section of the country, house of Congress, or anyone who opposes the appointment of a special counsel under these dangerous circumstances when our Constitution is at risk.

Secondly, new whistleblower protection should immediately be established for members of the executive branch who report evidence of wrongdoing, especially where it involves abuse of authority in the sensitive areas of national security.

Third, both houses of Congress should, of course, hold comprehensive and not just superficial hearings into these serious allegations of criminal behavior on the part of the president.

And they should follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Fourth, the extensive new powers requested by the executive branch in its proposal to extend and enlarge the Patriot Act should under no circumstances be granted unless and until there are adequate and enforceable safeguards to protect the Constitution and the rights of the American people against the kinds of abuses that have so recently been revealed.

Fifth, any telecommunications company that has provided the government with access to private information concerning the communications of Americans without a proper warrant should immediately cease and desist the their complicity in this apparently illegal invasion in the privacy of American citizens.

Freedom of communication is an essential prerequisite for the restoration of the health of our democracy.

It is particularly important that the freedom of the Internet be protected against either the encroachment of government or efforts at control by large media conglomerates. The future of our democracy depends on it.

In closing, I mention that, along with cause for concern, there is reason for hope.

As I stand here today, I am filled with optimism that America is on the eve of a golden age in which the vitality of our democracy will be re-established by the people and will flourish more vibrantly than ever. Indeed, I can feel it in this hall.

As Dr. King once said, perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

Thank you very much.