In the last few decades, presidential authority has ballooned to a degree the Founding Fathers never would have dreamed.
While this issue is now being discussed because of President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from treaties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accords, executive orders dealing with the border, and, more recently, his statements that he might declare a national emergency due to the ongoing crisis at the border, Trump isn’t the first to expand powers, something half the country seems to have forgotten.
The political left, the side I will readily give credit to for calling out the current president when he overreaches, was completely silent when former President Barack Obama did the same thing. Many who agreed with Obama were fine with an executive order granting amnesty to hundreds of thousands of people, or unilateral reforms to Title IX, or the 97,110 pages of rules and regulations passed on everything from the environment to federal contractors.
It’s not just Trump and Obama, though, as this pattern goes back to decades. Under former President Richard Nixon the problem became so obvious that Congress attempted to reclaim power, however many of the bills they passed have since been defanged.
This isn’t good for anyone. This was never how legislating was supposed to happen, with one president declaring a new law with the stroke of a pen only for the next to reverse the decision. National laws that bounce back and forth only create uncertainty for the very people they were meant to help, and they make it easier for the other side of the aisle to use new-found powers to its benefit.
As a country, everyone must come to an agreement that expanding presidential authority is a bad idea, even when “our guy” is the one doing it. Anything else, and the problem will grow until America reaches the very monarchy the founders tried so hard to avoid.
When George Washington left the office of the presidency in 1797, the position held relatively few direct powers. He could veto legislation, conduct foreign policy and act as Commander-in-Chief; though, Washington rarely used his veto and typically deferred to Congress on foreign and military affairs. Other than these, and a few other powers the Constitution directly laid out, the president was far from the executive seen today.
So then how did America get an office that many now describe as the most powerful position on Earth?
Many of the powers the president now has were once the responsibility of the legislative branch. Perhaps the most commonly cited example is foreign policy. Congress originally had to declare war, something that hasn’t been done since the second World War, even though there have been numerous conflicts since the 1940s that would be described as a war.
And it’s not just war, as peace is no longer governed by Congress either. There have only been three treaties ratified by Congress in the past decade, meaning that much of the actual process of conducting foreign policy has moved to the executive branch, making Congress closer to a rubber-stamp than a meaningful partner. This is the direct opposite of what the founders intended, and Secretary Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 75, even laid out in great depth the president couldn’t have unilateral treaty-making power, despite the fact that this is now the case.
In addition to foreign policy, the president now has far more control over the budget-making process, the nation’s economy and the day-to-day running of the country compared to what the founders envisioned.
Much of the reason for these new-found powers can be chalked down to Congress giving up control as much as the president takes it. This is because Capitol Hill naturally works on finding consensus, often making it much easier to simply sidestep controversial issues and let the president handle them, and, consequently, let the president take the blame when unpopular decisions are made.
The founders were worried about many things, though not this. They expected the last thing Congress would do was give up authority, as they assumed that people love power, and would want to accumulate as much power as possible.
Unfortunately, they were right, but in the wrong way. Many members of Congress have realized that, while Congress as a whole might lose power if it backs down on these issues, the members personally keep far more power if they are able to keep getting elected. This has resulted in a situation where many individual members will gladly cede Congressional authority if it means they’ll more likely be reelected in the short term.
For this to work, however, it takes more than just Congress giving power; it also takes a president willing to claim it, and Democratic and Republican presidents are too guilty of taking this power.