Former Cheney Aide a Driver in Debt Debate

David Addington, who worked as chief of staff to George W. Bush's vice president, pushes the tea-party line from his post at the Heritage Foundation

David Addington - Mandel Ngan Getty - banner.jpg

With the United States moving closer to a historic debt default, both parties are bringing out the big guns. Democrats have senior administration officials like Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner warning that a failure to strike a deal will push the fragile economy back into recession. Republicans have prominent conservative economists like former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin arguing that any deal should primarily involve spending cuts.

But the debate doesn't simply involve warring economists. Instead, one of the louder voices belongs to David Addington, the architect of the George W. Bush administration's harsh interrogation policies and a former chief of staff for then-Vice President Dick Cheney.

Addington has taken on a new role as enforcer of tea party dogma during the intensifying partisan bickering over the debt ceiling. From his perch as the Heritage Foundation's vice president for domestic and economic policy, Addington is throwing verbal thunderbolts at House Speaker John Boehner's current debt-ceiling proposal, which he argues will pave the way to tax increases.

The merits of Addington's arguments about the need to oppose Boehner's proposals are in some ways less interesting than the simple fact that Addington is the one publicly making them. Addington kept a low profile during the Bush years, granting no interviews and largely shunning lawmakers from either party. But he wielded enormous power behind the scenes, helping Cheney craft the Bush administration's warrantless eavesdropping program and most of its detention initiatives.

Critics of those policies say they're horrified by Addington's reemergence onto the public stage.

"To see this person who led the country into legal and moral disaster resurface as a respected commentator is somewhat galling," said Ben Wizner, the litigation director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project. "Addington was as responsible as anyone else for the U.S. becoming a torturing nation. He has done damage to the U.S. that will take decades to reverse."

Addington didn't respond to e-mails seeking comment, but Heritage Foundation spokesman James Weidman noted that Addington had handled domestic issues for Cheney as well as national-security ones.

"There being no weightier domestic or econ policy at this particular time than the debt-limit negotiations, he's our top dog in that area and that's why he's weighing in on it," Weidman said. "I realize that his career has been largely focused on security issues but then again that started to change when he went to work for Cheney because his portfolio covered the waterfront there, domestic as well as foreign and defense."

During the Bush years, Addington was known for carrying around a modified copy of the Constitution that contained pages of detailed--though legally questionable--policies for ensuring presidential succession after a cataclysmic terrorist attack. Addington believed that the executive branch had the power to pursue the war on terror without congressional or judicial oversight and was a staunch proponent of using harsh measures--including some widely seen as torture--against suspected al-Qaida operatives. The Washington Post referred to him as "Cheney's Cheney" and "the man most responsible for building President Bush's notion of an imperial presidency."

Today, Addington is enjoying an unexpected second life in an even more heated debate than the torture fight that clouded his years working for Cheney.

In a column posted on Monday on Heritage's website, Addington argued that conservatives should mobilize to block Boehner's current proposal for a short-term debt-ceiling increase centered around a package of spending cuts and the creation of a joint select congressional committee charged with finding other ways of bringing down the yawning deficit.

"Debt-limit legislation should drive down federal spending on the way to a balanced budget, while preserving the ability to protect America, and without raising taxes," Addington wrote. "The plan suggested by [Boehner] fails to meet that objective--indeed, it sets America up for tax hikes."

Addington's specific objection was that the committee could theoretically propose raising taxes as part of a package of recommendations that would not be subject to amendments and would have to receive an up-or-down vote.

"The second step greases the way for tax hikes," he wrote.

The Heritage Foundation maintains close ties to the tea party movement and frequently tries to channel tea party sentiment in its policy recommendations and op-eds. It is particularly critical of Boehner's plan, which sees it as a gateway to tax increases. Such opposition complicates the ongoing negotiations dramatically. If the most conservative House Republicans follow Heritage's lead, as many analysts expect, Boehner won't be able to pass his plan without a large chunk of Democratic votes, which could force the speaker to water down his demands for major cuts to entitlement programs like Social Security.

Some liberal legal scholars--citing the fourth section of the 14th Amendment, which says "the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law ... shall not be questioned"--believe that Obama has the power to disregard the congressionally imposed debt ceiling. The White House has disregarded that advice, preferring to continue the to-date fruitless negotiations with Boehner and Republicans. That means Addington, as strong a proponent of unbridled executive branch authority as can be found in either party, is now in the strange position of supporting lawmakers trying to bind a president's hand.

Image credit: Mandel Ngan/Getty