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Senate, House Proposals Aim to Curb White House Secrecy

Yesterday, Sen. Russ Feingold examined ways to rein in executive power. Today he took a first step toward doing just that.

The Wisconsin Democrat introduced legislation Wednesday that would require the Justice Dept. to tell Congress whenever the agency issues a legal opinion deeming the White House to be exempt from federal law.

The bill arrives in response to a string of decisions passed down by the DoJ’s Office of Legal Council, allowing the Bush administration to ignore federal statures. Most famously, a 2003 OLC decision claimed the torture of war-on-terror detainees to be legal. A statement from Feingold’s office provides a more nuanced legal reasoning for the legislation:

Current law requires the Attorney General to report to Congress when the Justice Department decides not to enforce or defend a federal statute. But a loophole in that law allows the Justice Department to secretly depart from the terms of a statute under the guise of interpreting it. At a hearing of the Constitution Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the topic of “secret law” chaired by Feingold on April 30, 2008, Dawn Johnsen, a former Clinton official, and Bradford Berenson, a former counsel to President George W. Bush, agreed that Congress should close that loophole.

In the House, the same bill is being sponsored by Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), who said: “We can’t allow another administration to operate in secret the way the Bush administration has.”

That’s great, but how about not allowing the Bush administration to operate in secret the way the Bush administration has?

Note: An earlier version of this post mistakenly named Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) the House sponsor.

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