Monday, January 19, 2009

Inauguration Day and the Rise of Presidential Power

I have often wondered (sometimes aloud) why people tend to blame the president for any political actions they disagree with. I've thought "don't they remember ANYTHING from their high school Civics courses? Don't they realize that it's the legislative branch - aka Congress - who creates the laws that they don't like?"

The conclusion I have come to is that it's easier to point the finger at one individual and blame "the Bush" (or "the Clinton" or whomever) administration. After all, the president is in some ways a figurehead (but not quite like Queen Elizabeth is a figurehead in England). He is the public face and voice of America to the rest of the world. And in those nations without a representative government, an individual leader is all they have known, all they understand.

Then I came across an interesting confirmation of my theory - one I hadn't expected. In researching the two distinct - but related - concepts of "separation of powers" and "checks and balances" the other day, I came across an interesting discussion about the rise of presidential power:

It was Andrew Jackson, the seventh President, who was the first to use the veto as a political weapon. During his two terms in office, he vetoed twelve bills—more than all of his predecessors combined. . .

Some of Jackson's successors made no use of the veto power, while others used it intermittently. It was only after the Civil War that Presidents began to use the power to truly counterbalance Congress. . .

Grover Cleveland, the first Democratic President following Johnson, attempted to restore the power of his office. During his first term, he vetoed over four hundred bills—twice as many bills as his twenty-one predecessors combined. He also began to suspend bureaucrats who were appointed as a result of the patronage system, replacing them with more "deserving" individuals. The Senate, however, refused to confirm many new nominations. . .Cleveland's popular support forced the Senate to back down and confirm the nominees. . . Thus, Cleveland's Administration marked the end of Presidential subordination.

Several twentieth-century Presidents have attempted to greatly expand the power of the Presidency. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, claimed that the President was permitted to do whatever was not explicitly prohibited by the law—in direct contrast to his immediate successor, William Howard Taft. Franklin Delano Roosevelt held considerable power during the Great Depression. . .

Richard Nixon. . . used national security as a basis for his expansion of power. . .

The rise of the presidency was also aided by the rise of a modern media establishment. In an era of limited attention spans and shortened time for television news, it was easier for journalists to focus on the actions of one centralized, decisive figure—the President—than on the actions of a loose, decentralized, milling chamber of equals, like the Senate or House. (emphasis added)
This article from Wikipedia not only confirms my theory that "it's easier to point the finger at one individual and blame 'the Bush' or 'the Clinton' administration" but also gives a further explanation: the media (specifically television) have led the charge in this overemphasis on the Executive Branch. As my friend Andrew Tallman wrote, "the things the news reports. . .are only a small slice of the truth. And if all we see on a regular basis is the most strange and shocking slices of the truth, in the process our picture of the whole truth has become badly distorted."

What will it take to bring back a "balance of power" and recognize that it's Congress and not the president that we should distrust the most? As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, regarding the ability of each branch to defend itself from actions by the others, that "it is not possible to give to each department an equal power of self-defense. In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates." (emphasis added)

It might begin with each of us not pointing our collective (conservative evangelical Christian) finger at President Obama and blaming him for all the woes of the land.
  • Yes, he made lots of campaign promises that most of us probably didn't like - but it's Congress that will end up writing the laws that make those promises reality.
  • Yes, he appoints people to cabinet positions and other positions of power - but it's Congress that confirms those appointments.
  • Yes, he will probably propose new laws that aggravate most Christians - maybe even cause us to fear - but again, it's Congress that will create any new laws.
May we all remember the lessons learned so long ago in our Civics classes and recognize just who creates our laws. And more than that - may we remember that a sovereign God reigns over a nation's rulers. Just to refresh our memories, read
  • Prov. 8:15-16
  • Jer. 27:5-7
  • Dan. 2:20-21; 4:27-37
  • Rom. 13:1-2

Blessed be the name of the Lord!

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