Perhaps one of the most interesting times in a president’s administration is during the end of his term in office. Having reached the ultimate goal in a politician’s career, a president no longer has to worry about public opinion or any of the other political give and takes that usually influence a politician’s actions. He is truly free to act as he pleases almost free of consequences. Bill Clinton’s final days in office certainly demonstrated this fact. Using the ultimate unchecked executive power of clemency Clinton issued over 140 pardons and thirty six sentence commutations.
He protected over a million acres of land through the creation of six new national monuments. He also nominated nine new federal judges. Clinton also issued a number of executive orders during this time. Unlike most previous presidents who laid low during their last days in office, Clinton was in a flurry of activity trying to exert some last bit of influence from his office. The reasons for his actions are wide spread, ranging from political to personal. The results of his actions were extensive, affecting many situations in the American political and judicial realms.
The final days of Clinton administration may be the most controversial of a presidency that was full of tumult and plagued by scandals. Most powers in our government do not go unchecked; the power of the presidential pardon is an exception to this rule. It is explicit in the constitution that this power was meant to be held solely by the president for the purpose of forcing him to use it sparingly and fairly. Nonetheless our government has evolved a system through which presidential pardons usually follow.
The system was developed so as to insure that pardons were not used for personal or political gain. All clemency candidates are screened first by the department of justice and then a committee formed by the president before a full report, with recommendations for action, is presented to the president himself. Normally the department of justice does not consider an applicant eligible for a presidential pardon until five years after his or her sentence has been completed or after the conviction if no sentence is given.
Also, according the normal regulations, pardons aren’t granted to people who are under probation or parole. Due to the wording in the constitution, “He (the president) shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States”, these norms and regulations can be completely bypassed altogether. This is exactly what president Clinton did on his final day in office. Of the 140 pardons that president Clinton issued on his last day as president, over fifty of them bypassed this system of regulation.
Many of the motivations behind the pardons came under high scrutiny. Pardons issued by Clinton included many former and recent contributors to his wife’s senatorial campaign. Other pardons were issued to prisoners whom hired Hugh Rodham (Hilary’s brother) as a consultant to the pardon applications, at an enormous cost, some exceeding the hundred thousand dollar mark. Clinton also pardoned many people whom happened to have close relation to Clinton’s family and friends, including his brother Roger Clinton, the reverend Jesse Jackson, as well as his brother in law Hugh Rodham.
Despite these dubious situations surrounding the pardons no one was in any position to do anything about it. Perhaps the only thing more outrageous than the alleged motivation behind many of the pardons were the people whom Clinton pardoned. For example, Dorothy Rivers was convicted of fraud, theft and tax evasion when she used money from government grants that was intended for under privileged children for her own personal use. She bought a fur coat, a Mercedes Benz as well as other lavish gifts for herself and her family.
She was sentenced to five years and ten months in a federal prison. She was pardoned by Clinton on his final day in office having served three years. Many alleged that her close friendship to the reverend Jesse Jackson, advisor to President Clinton, could have been an influence in her pardon, however it is impossible to prove such allegations. Another example of an outrageous pardon was that of drug trafficker Carlos Vignali. Carlos was convicted of drug trafficking in 1994 for shipping about a half ton of cocaine to Minneapolis. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
After his imprisonment his father Horatio Vignali became a large contributor to the Democratic Party. Sure enough Carlos made the president’s list of eleventh hour pardons despite recommendations from the justice department that Carlos not be released. It must be understood that many of President Clinton’s pardons were very legitimate with reasonable justification behind them. He obviously wanted to leave a final mark on history as a forgiving president, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The issue is with the pardons that involved dubious motivations and applicants.
In some cases it was an abuse of power unmatched by any president in history. It was a simply blatant exchange of presidential favors for party, personal and monetary gain. When the framers endowed on the executive this power of clemency they certainly could not have foreseen events such as these. Some of the most interesting actions of President Clinton during his final days in office were the executive orders he issued. Many of them seemed to have the intention of exerting influence over the incoming presidency of George W. Bush.
For example, Clinton created six new national monuments consisting of over a million acres of land. This land is now protected from development and destruction. Some may argue that Clinton created these protected lands as a check to incoming President Bush’s unfriendly environmental policy he demonstrated as governor of Texas. President Clinton also issued an executive order that would reduce the amount of arsenic in drinking water by over a 100 percent. This is a seemingly fantastic idea, removing poison from drinking and faucet water.
The cost of implementing this was enormous however, spelling over billions in spending for local and state governments that would eventually come out of the tax payers’ pocket. Clinton may or may not have realized this (he most likely did), but President Bush certainly did. He revoked this executive order once in office. As it turns out this story became a huge rally point for anti-Bush groups. Despite the enormous costs and the fact that the current amounts of arsenic in the water were not harmful, many headlines simply read “Bush nixes order to reduce arsenic in drinking water”.
This was a disaster for an incoming president that was already viewed as anti-environmentalist. Another activity during the eleventh hour of the Clinton’s presidency that could be viewed as an abuse of power was his court appointments. Normally a president can only appoint people with “the advice and consent of the senate”. However a loophole allows the president to appoint people single handedly while congress is in recess. Presidents in the past have avoided using this power so as not to insult the senate and be on the receiving end of its retaliation.
Clinton was not going to be subject to this retaliation seeing as how it was basically the end of his political career. Clinton made nine appointments in this eleventh hour with out the senate’s involvement. With all these final hour activities it seems as if President Clinton was trying to fit an entire four year term into four final weeks in office. Fearing no political retribution, having obtained the highest office in American politics Clinton unleashed a torrent of activity to benefit himself and his friends, to leave a final mark on history and to try to exert one last bit of control over the American political system.
The side effects of these final actions were vast, setting an unheard of precedent for lame duck presidents. Many of Clinton’s actions were truly shameless, blatant abuses of power. Clinton’s two terms of presidency were marred by scandals, impeachment and lawsuits, but this did not stop him from saving the best for last. We may only hope that future two term presidents do not follow his standard of use of unchecked power in the final hour.