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Published: Friday, 2/2/2007

Michigan congressman set to tackle executive power grab

DETROIT - Any other chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, no matter the politics, would have given a very measured, noncommittal, highly judicious answer. But this was House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D., Detroit), a man who has never been shy about letting anyone, street person or U.S. president, know where he stands.

So I asked: Do you think this President has committed impeachable offenses? The man who now has the power to start impeachment hearings didn't hesitate for a heartbeat.

"Yes sir. I think if we had the kind of investigations I have been trying to get started for the last couple years, we would all come to agree with (former Congressman) Elizabeth Holtzman and many constitutional scholars who have written about it.

"It is pretty plain there are some problems with whether he has kept his oath of office," the congressman said.

John Conyers never has been one to disguise his true feelings, not from the day he arrived in Washington in January, 1965. He was a freshman then, a darkly handsome 35-year-old bachelor, one of only six African-Americans in Congress.

Mr. Conyers had won his first election by a paper-thin 109 votes, got to Washington and immediately lobbied hard and successfully to win a seat on Judiciary. Yet before his second term was through he had openly defied President Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam - something then unthinkable for a young black man.

He introduced an impeachment resolution against Richard Nixon before Watergate, and promptly became one of the first names on his infamous enemies list. Mr. Conyers is, incidentally, the only congressman in history to have taken part in impeachment hearings for two presidents. He supported ousting Mr. Nixon in 1974, and then ably but unsuccessfully fought to defend Bill Clinton in 1999.

Now, it truly is his committee. His party controls Congress, and he strongly suspects the President is a criminal.

So does that mean we are in for a third set of impeachment hearings in little more than a third of a century?

Well probably not. "The short answer is that there isn't time," the chairman said in his distinctive, measured voice.

"There isn't time, and it would stop the progress that the Congress would otherwise be trying to make between now and when the elections occur next year."

And, he added candidly, "We've made this very reluctant decision because we need to add to our narrow majorities in both houses of Congress, and get ready to take back the presidency in 2008, and this would work exactly contrary to that."

But never say never.

"For the first time in six years - well, it goes back further, really- we are going to have congressional oversight. And investigations. And it is conceivable something might change my mind. I couldn't say there is nothing this President could do that would shock me. I want to make sure that we don't let a clear revelation of the facts go by the wayside," he said.

"And every impeachable offense cannot always be dealt with immediately, and the impeachment process is not ended once a person leaves office."

Does that mean he might try to impeach George W. Bush after he leaves town two years from now? Well, he just might. But for now, he is starting by launching an aggressive investigation of what are called "signing statements."

The President, he explained, has signed hundreds of such statements claiming that his executive powers permit him to bypass various federal laws enacted since he took office.

Mr. Conyers thinks this is outrageous. "Since Watergate, there has been an outrageous power grab by the executive and an attempt to shift power from the legislative branch," he said.

He means to redress the balance. And he means business. His committee is hiring a special oversight and investigative unit of about six attorneys to help probe administration activities.

"This is about a growing abuse of power," the 77-year-old congressman said.

Mr. Conyers is a serious constitutional scholar - and a man full of surprises. He was past 60 when he married for the first time, and now is the proud father of two boys. One of his proudest accomplishments is a congressional resolution honoring jazz.

When asked to name his biggest goal this congressional session, he doesn't hesitate. To pass a bill calling for universal single-payer health care. "It will be very difficult," he acknowledges. "But that's my biggest cause.

"Can I mention the top three presidential candidates I am looking at?" They are, in this order, Illinois U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

"We're in for an exciting two years," he genially adds. Which may be exactly what the Bush Administration most fears.



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