Power Wars Blog by Charlie Savage

Takeover document: Dick Cheney’s undelivered 1989 paper on presidential power and “congressional overreaching in foreign policy”

I’ve posted several primary source documents of interest in Power Wars on this blog, and it occurred to me that I should also make generally available an important primary source document that I dug up when I was writing my first book, Takeover, eight years ago. I had put this up on Document Cloud in 2012, but Google’s search engine is more likely to help people find it this way.

It is then-Representative Dick Cheney’s 42-page paper, “Congressional Overreaching in Foreign Policy.” I discuss this paper in Section 8 of Chapter 3 (“A Cabal of Zealots: 1977-2000”) in Takeover. Basically, in March 1989, Cheney was going to deliver a talk at the American Enterprise Institute about why he thought the executive branch should have sole control of foreign policy. He turned this paper in ahead of the envisioned conference, but he never delivered it. In the meantime, George H.W. Bush’s original nomination of John Tower to be secretary of defense melted down, and the White House asked Cheney to lead the Pentagon instead. So Cheney bowed out, shelving his remarks. I found a brief reference to them in this short Washington Post article by David Broder in 1989, which he found newsworthy in light of Cheney’s nomination, and obtained a copy of the full text during my book research.

I found them fascinating as a key moment in Cheney’s intellectual history, leading to the Bush-Cheney push to expand executive power starting in 2001. The AEI paper grew out of Cheney’s work overseeing the production of the minority report defending the Reagan administration during the Iran-Contra investigation in part on the grounds that the Boland Amendment, which the Reagan administration violated, was unconstitutional.

About 14 months later, Cheney put together this paper. He referred readers back to the legal arguments in the Iran-Contra minority report, but added a normative gloss: he said he wanted to get beyond the legal arguments over the possible meanings of the “parchment document” and explain why, for pragmatic and “real world” reasons, he endorsed an interpretation of the Constitution that gave stronger powers to the president and a lessor role for Congress.