Once upon a time the American people didn't want an all powerful ruler. Our system of government was constructed to reduce the chances of it happening, with the inclusion of just enough elasticity as to avoid entirely neutering the President of his usefulness. That elasticity has been stretched far beyond the original vision of the Constitutional Framers. After years of slow expansion, Presidents hold powerful sway over the Legislature and can sign whims into law with executive orders. They have control of an extensive bureaucracy whose agencies create rules to be followed as law. Appointments to offices boil down to the President's preference of political party; merit is secondary. This has happened for a few reasons. First, of course, is because our Presidents have slowly usurped power from the other branches of government. Secondly, we like the idea of a ruler, a figurehead and lightning rod, to affix our insecurities and blame, to pass as much responsibility onto as possible. We downright demand Presidential intervention in the most banal arenas. The President is having conferences on High School Football injuries and is forced to respond to accusation about smoking cigarettes. The President is expected to weigh in on every subject.
I mentioned in an earlier blog how the president has extensive influence over congress. Because the President is the party leader, all members of congress in his party back his initiatives, proposed laws, programs, orders and policies, essentially making the leader of the Executive the most powerful influence in the legislature. This party influence extends to the governors and legislatures of the states. Presidential power is top-down policy all the way to county level. This wasn't an unforeseen development. Before George Washington's death, nearly every political leader voiced concern about the dangers of letting factions (parties) get a foothold of power in the government. Political Parties could push their agendas above the will of the people and infiltrate various branches of government, creating an infrastructure that would override the impartial operation of federal branches. Parties could create laws that favored themselves and then enforce them. Alexander Hamilton spoke about the dangers Factions posed in Federalist #9. James Madison suggested how to guard against them in Federalist #10. George Washington warned against them in his Farewell Address. Within 20 years, the Republican-Democrat party seized control of the presidency and the legislature and their dominance wasn't seriously threatened until the 1850s, despite some losses along the way.
Many of the concerns about separation of power and Presidential abuse of power were voiced in anti-federalist essays by New York governor George Clinton, Virginia Revolutionaries Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, and other prominent founders. To allay these concerns Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, with an assist from John Jay, published 85 essays explaining the benefits of the proposed Constitution. These essays, now collected in one volume called The Federalist, stated arguments in direct refutation of the anti-federalist papers. Over the centuries many of the arguments laid out in The Federalist have been ignored. In addition to the loss of separation of power in the federal government, as explained above, the President can now wage war, probably the most significant fear voiced by anti-federalists and carefully guarded against by the Constitutional Framers. Obviously, all attempts to thwart this presidential abuse of power have failed.
Delegates to the Constitutional Convention made every effort to reasonably limit presidential war powers, allowing him to use his designation of Commander and Chief of the Armed Forces only when he was "called into actual service of the Union," as Hamilton said in Federalist #69. He goes on to state, "while that of the British king extends to the DECLARING of war and to the RAISING and REGULATING of fleets and armies, all which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature." The power to wage war was not only excluded, it was and still IS forbidden under the current Constitution. To invade another country is supposed to be left solely up to Congress. Swift action without the consent of Congress by the Commander in Chief was only for the purpose of repelling invaders, suppressing rebellions and Indian attacks, securing the border against the Spanish, and guarding trade routes. Over the next century, it understandably extended to covert military operations and military escorts. For a President to send hundreds of thousands of troops into foreign lands without the consent of Congress was not part of the plan. It was the exact thing the founders despised about the power of kings. Kings could start wars the people didn't want and then force the people to pay for them. You may think I'm making reference to the current Iraq war, and its certainly an example, but I'm more aggravated with all the times in the past that people supported the actions of the president when he expanded his powers to the point where he could do something like invade Iraq. This power didn't come from conservatives. The ability to wage war came mostly from liberals who wished to extend presidential power without considering who might inherit the throne.
In a few instances the American people attempted to limit the expansion of presidential power, but the efforts largely failed. For example, a few years after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, the United States ratified the 22nd amendment, which created term limits for the Presidency. Roosevelt was elected president four times and died while barely into his fourth term. For twelve years he set up a vast support structure throughout the government and even tried to further secure his authority by pushing through new laws that would allow him to appoint even more people. The amount of power he wrangled out of the position caused opponents to call him "King Frank." Due to the fear of the wrong person getting into the same position, the U.S. decided that Presidents should only be allowed two terms. To limit the tenure of office was not a new sentiment. New York Governor George Clinton stated in one of his anti-federalist papers in 1787 channeling Montesquieu, "the greatness of the power must be compensated by the brevity of the duration" and "the deposit of vast trusts in the hands of a single magistrate enables him in their exercises to create a numerous train of dependents." Limiting terms turned out to not matter much because a president of the same political party as his predecessor is very much like having the same President. They can continue to build up their bases of party support in the federal government, appointing people, sometimes for life, and their agenda may be carried out even if they leave office or die.
The epitome of presidential power comes from "executive orders." They have the "force of law" and are now frequently used as laws over the American people. Executive orders were intended for very few uses. War, of course, would require swift policy orders from the president that should not be obstructed. Policies for martial law in occupied territories could fall under the jurisdiction of executive orders. Mostly, executive orders were for administrative purposes only. In the last hundred years or so, executive orders are becoming more like Royal Decrees; the President signs it and it is a law. Presidents have expanded this power at such an exceptional rate they can now dictate our personal management of valuables, prevent us from striking against employers (just about the only thing that has been challenged in the courts), imprison citizens without trial based on ancestry, persecute political undesirables, unconstitutionally distribute tax dollars to support churches (some safeguards have been attempted and continue to fail), and impede scientific research without the consent of the people. (Anyone waiting for me to attack President Obama for his abuse of executive orders, don't hold your breath. He has exerted a nearly unparalleled influence over congress but, as near as I can tell, hasn't abused executive orders. Then again, he hasn't needed to.)
Where does this leave us? Basically under the rule of the Founders' definition of a King. I think that many people are not only tolerant of this development, but prefer it. Maybe because we haven't had to fight very hard for the freedoms we enjoy. I think it's dangerous and if we continue down this path, the current incarnation of federal government could become the greatest enemy to freedom we have ever faced. Many times, we are afraid to point out abuses of power because it benefits us short term. I don't think we can let that stand. We need to keep pointing out abuses of power, no matter where they come from. We have already let it slip a long way and are facing the consequences of our apathy. We are finally becoming aware that Presidential power can realistically topple our economy and take away our freedoms. It's not as simple as voting a power hungry President out of office. During elections, we are forced to choose between two candidates that want to expand that power. We may eventually be able to turn it around. We can start with the abolition of special benefits to Republicans and Democrats. It would be a great benefit to the people's voice. Placing more power in the individual states would also help reduce expansion and abuse of federal power. I don't think increasing state power is ideal, but it's better than life under a King.