Power plays

America’s system of checks and balances is getting a good workout lately. That’s because, when the House Judiciary Committee voted recently to cite two top Bush administration officials for contempt of Congress, it put the executive and legislative branches on a collision course.

The citations resulted from the refusals of former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and current Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten to respond to subpoenas to testify about the administration’s possibly illegal purge of nine U.S. attorneys, citing executive privilege.

It’s one thing to refuse to answer questions out of a wish to respect presidential confidentiality; it’s quite another simply not to show up when Congress calls. The Constitution gives Congress oversight power, and Miers and Bolten have no legal right to flout it.

The matter has now gone to the whole House. It should confirm the committee’s vote. And if the administration refuses to allow the Justice Department to pursue the charges, as the White House has threatened to do, Congress should hold its own trial.

The Bush administration has spent the past six years building up an imperial presidency. Now it wants to claim the right to thwart congressional oversight simply by claiming executive privilege. Congress should and must reclaim its power.