Cheney began his political career as an intern for William Steiger in 1969, and the Nixon administration shaped his broader political beliefs. Post-Watergate, executive power was at a low; Dick campaigned for Ford (who lost to Carter in 1976) and thereafter sought the restoration of executive power. On numerous occasions, Cheney has echoed Nixon’s infamous “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal” sentiment, both in speech and action.
Cheney was elected in to office in 1978, succeeding retiring Congressman Teno Roncalio in Wyoming’s only congressional district. He was re-elected five times, serving until 1989. Much of his time in congress was during the Reagan administration (1981–1989), and it was then that Dick developed his juxtaposed beliefs in a small federal government and the expansion of executive power.
Cheney’s voting record is somewhat contentious, and demonstrates his concerns about ‘big government’ and increasing the federal deficit. Most emblematic of this is his vote against the creation of the Department of Education in 1979. The bill was widely opposed by Republicans who valued decentralized education and, more broadly, states’ rights. Dick later explained that the motivation to vote against the bill was also economic; of course, central to the 1980s Republican platform were Reagan’s tax cuts and the wider experiment with neoliberalism, seen now to have increased the deficit and poised the nation for the current recession.
Witnessing and later investigating the Iran-Contra scandal (for the uninformed, see wikipedia), Cheney’s position was solidified; Reagan, as president, had the inherent power to make the arms-for-hostages arrangements and likewise fund the Contras with or without the approval of Congress. Cheney, along with David S. Addington (a reoccurring character) and few others, sponsored a minority report disapproving of the majority allegations the White House had overstepped legal boundaries: it held that congressional Democrats were trying to usurp executive power and placed the blame of the scandal with Congress for attempting to limit the president’s constitutionally appointed powers over foreign policy.
The minority report reduced the role of Congress in foreign policy to nearly nothing; it was a reaction to the perceived threat of an Imperial Congress, and a delayed defense against the claims of Nixon’s Imperial Presidency. Dick’s desire to expand the executive continued through his Vice Presidency: a topic for another post.