Iowans witnessing executive power-grabbing

BY SHAWN GUDE | JULY 20, 2011 7:20 AM

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Call it the imperial governorship.

As President Obama cements — and, at times, expands — the executive power gains achieved under the Bush imperial presidency, Iowans are witnessing their own executive power-grabbing.

Gov. Terry Branstad, far removed from his previous four terms, has overstepped his electoral mandate and upset the balance of power in state government.

The most brazen power grab occurred last week, when state Board of Regents President David Miles and President Pro Tem Jack Evans stepped down from their leadership positions at the behest of Branstad. The governor has no statutory or constitutional power to compel regent leaders to resign (the two are elected by their fellow regents). But, after arm-twisting, Miles and Evans assented to Branstad's request.

Their reasoning?

Miles cited in his resignation letter "the distraction to the Board from an ongoing impasse. Already, decision-making has become more difficult and time is being taken from the ongoing work of the Board."

Miles' decision to resign was perhaps the most emollient action, but it could set a problematic precedent as well. It's bad enough that the board is losing a leader who has been an outspoken critic of declining state appropriations. But implicitly granting the governor the power to decide who can and can't helm the regents concentrates more and more power in the governorship.

In another distressing display of executive arrogance, Branstad cut the compensation of Workers Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey after Godfrey rebuffed the governor's request for his resignation. Combined with Branstad's imperious rhetoric — "there's a new sheriff in town" — these actions amount to a concerted effort to expand the contours of executive power.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The former governor, while too conservative for my tastes, was widely seen as a moderate Republican who engaged in good faith with ideological opponents.

The signs that suggested otherwise, if there were any, were imperceptible. Or maybe I had just unwittingly developed a carapace of naïveté, due to my utter contempt for Chet Culver or, next to Bob Vander Plaats, Branstad seemed comparatively sane.

Either way, I begrudgingly blackened the bubble next to Culver's name on Election Day, feeling that Branstad would at least be worse on labor, education, and environmental issues. (There weren't any impressive third-party alternatives from the left, either.)

Still, I wasn't spooked by the idea of a Branstad victory. Now, it appears that a perceived electoral mandate to drastically shrink government (and maybe the political environment) has gone to Branstad's head. Even fellow Republican Kraig Paulsen, the speaker of the House, admitted in a recent interview with the Associated Press that, "This is a different Terry Branstad."

To be fair, Branstad easily defeated Culver in the general election and, as the axiom goes, "Elections have consequences."

Even if voters handed Branstad's a sizable win because they really want to cut the size of the state, though — and this is questionable: Culver was unpopular, the economy was struggling, and it was a Republican election year — Branstad can't do whatever he wishes. Any mandate he does possess surely doesn't encompass his nakedly megalomaniacal moves.

The problem is, the 64-year-old isn't acting unconstitutionally. The courts can't step in, and most partisan politicians will only do so out of expediency.

Right-minded citizens — Democrats, Republicans, and otherwise — should fill that void.

In some ways, protesting the governor's overweening actions is harder to rally around than increasing education funding or, conversely, stripping union workers of collective-bargaining rights.

But the executive power issue is also fundamentally different: At its core, it's a structural and institutional question. At least in theory, citizens should support the basic institutional rules of the game (otherwise, democratic decision-making becomes prohibitively difficult).

Branstad has freely impinged on others' rightful authority. It's up to us to rein him in.

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