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‘Turning the lights on’ in Congress

For more on the constitutional issues now facing the Democratic majority in the next session of Congress, "Countdown" host Keith Olbermann talked to Jonathan Turley, George Washington University law professor and noted constitutional law expert.

Can the Democrats live up to their brand name?  How about making some progress towards restoring habeas corpus?  Or maybe stopping those presidential signing statements?

For more on the constitutional issues now facing the Democratic majority in the next session of Congress, "Countdown" host Keith Olbermann talked to Jonathan Turley, George Washington University law professor and noted constitutional law expert.

Read the transcript below.

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, "COUNTDOWN":  Are the circumstances better?  The Republican total control on government has been broken.  Is somebody going to now unravel our least-favorite act of the 21st century, the Military Commissions Act?  And what would be involved in getting it unraveled?

JONATHAN TURLEY, CONSTITUTIONAL LAW PROFESSOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY:  Well, first, someone has to find where the boxes are to turn lights back on in Congress.  I mean, this has been an institution that has just been a non-entity.  There’s been nothing happening in Congress in terms of oversight or serious review or hearings.

You know, the Democrats often had to hold hearings that were quasi-oversight hearings in the basement, because they would lock them out of committee rooms.

So you've got to find all those keys and all those switches, I expect.

But, yes, it’s a better day, I think, for everyone.  It doesn’t really depend upon what your politics are, the system works better when you have branches that look over each other’s shoulders.  And Republicans should feel more comforted in an important way, because mistakes are less likely when the Congress is asking, "How are you doing this?  What are you getting back?  How efficient is it?"

Now, in terms of things like the military tribunals and the torture rules, we’ll have to see the appetite of the 110th Congress, the new Democratic majority, to go back and mix it up.  Clearly, their base would like them to do that.  But we’ll see what the intestinal fortitude of these leaders are.

OLBERMANN:  Do they even have to do anything, or is there a damper effect just by the presence of Democrats in control of Congress?  I mean, did somebody’s odds of winding up unjustly, if there’s a justly, I don’t know, but unjustly in Gitmo just drop precipitously, simply because of the prospect of oversight and subpoenas and such?

TURLEY:  Well, I think that, quite frankly, I believe that American citizens will be more protected in their civil liberties now that we have a branch that will serve a check and a balance.  There's a suspicion that the humming you hear around the city is not an early spring but paper shredders going on through the night, because most of Republicans, I think, expects a flurry of subpoenas to come out in January.

And they expect that there will be misconduct that is likely to be revealed.  It often does when you go through a period of dormancy, where there’s no oversight.

But once again, I think that all citizens can feel a little bit better.  You know, one of the reasons we have a government of checks and balances is not just for this type of partisan bickering, but it’s just that government works better when there’s more than one set of eyes on a problem.

OLBERMANN:  Even with control of both houses of Congress, though, the president made a habit of issuing these signing statements for any part of any piece of legislation he did not intend to comply with.  Do the Democrats have a means of attacking that?

TURLEY:  They do.  The most powerful means they have is the power of the purse.  And some of these new chairmen are known to exercise that power, people like John Dingell who’ll be over at Commerce, and John Conyers.  These are guys that do not suffer fools lightly.  I expect that they’re going to use every piece of power they have to protect the integrity of Congress.

Those signing statements have been condemned by lawyers of both parties as essentially circumventing our constitutional system.  And so the president’s going to have to cut that stuff out.  He’s now not an individual who’s exercising virtually unlimited power.  He’s going to have to share that power.  And that means he’s going to have to learn how to do it.

OLBERMANN:  We mentioned the Terrorist Surveillance Act and the president’s hopes of ramming that through the lame duck Congress before the Democrats arrive.  Is there anything procedurally the Democrats can do about this now?  Am I remembering my Robert’s Rules of Order class from Cornell correctly?  Should a Democrat now vote for it, then he gets the right to ask for another vote in the new year?  Or is that just book stuff and not practical stuff?

TURLEY:  Well, first of all, if they approve it, then they’re not going to get it back in the 110th Congress.  Why they would approve it, I don’t know.  And why the president’s insisting on it, I don’t know.

Here’s a guy who insisted he’d never needed authority to do this, even though many of us believed he committed dozens of federal crimes in carrying out this program.  And now suddenly, he can’t wait till the 110th to get it approved.  It’s much too urgent.

If the Democrats had took that deal, they really don’t deserve the majority.

OLBERMANN:  As always, great thanks for joining us.  And I suspect you and I are breathing a little earlier tonight.

TURLEY:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Thank you, sir.