With the 2016 presidential race upon us now in full force, America is reaffirming its long-standing fascination with these quadrennial elections.
In this age of social media, the prolific amount of ink and html spilled on the election makes the presidency seems more powerful than ever. And there is good reason for that belief: Successive generations of Americans have allowed it to happen.
There has not been a president in memory of either party that escaped the accusation of expanding his power beyond the limits of the Constitution.
At the same time, the Congress has been most often accused of creating a power vacuum by failing to sufficiently exert its constitutional powers as the “people’s house” — that branch of the federal government designed to be closest to the people.
It is a vacuum which many a president has eagerly filled.
In Article II, the Constitution explicitly grants the president far fewer powers than most people believe.
A president is constitutionally authorized to sign or veto legislation, command the armed forces, ask for the written opinion of his cabinet, convene or adjourn Congress, grant reprieves and pardons, and receive ambassadors. The president can also propose treaties and nominate judges, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.
That’s it. Those are the only powers granted to the president. But you would hardly know it by studying the modern presidency, and the massive and ever-expanding size of the executive branch of the federal government.
It is crucial to remember how wary the founding generation was of a strong executive. After all, they had just fought and won a revolution against a strong man they thought a tyrant, King George III of England. And most colonists were bound and determined not to allow a similarly powerful president here. That opposition to concentrated power is well reflected in the checks and balances that define our constitutional republic.
The Founders had a profound understanding of human nature — immutable, unchangeable as it is — and knew it would lead to presidents attempting to concentrate more and more power in one person — the president — despite such executive authority being antithetical to the very purpose of “We the People.”
That is why the Framers granted such narrow and clearly delineated powers to the executive branch in the Constitution, but in the fullness of time, those powers have expanded, bit by bit.
Presidents have often grasped more power when there’s a national crisis, reasoning that it is far easier for the nation to follow a single, strong leader than 535 individual members of Congress. American history is replete with examples.
During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln induced the Congress to pass legislation allowing him to suspend habeas corpus, the explicit constitutional right to challenge unlawful imprisonment.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to expand the executive branch far beyond its previous domestic footprint, advancing expansive “New Deal” programs, and attempting — unsuccessfully — to pack the Supreme Court, so that many of his programs might ultimately pass constitutional muster. President Lyndon Johnson continued this dramatic expansion of federal power with his championing of “Great Society” programs.
During deep recessions, Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter established government controls on wages and prices, and started massive new agencies regulating occupational safety, energy and the environment, thus exerting federal control over entire sectors of the private economy.
After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, President George W. Bush established the Homeland Security Agency with broad powers that have consistently tested constitutional limits. He also promoted a prescription-drug entitlement to Medicare, and significantly increased federal involvement in education, despite its being historically a local or state issue.
But it is not always a crisis that results in expanded executive power: Sometimes it is just the president’s belief that the public will accept it. A recent example is President Obama’s executive actions promising the nonenforcement of certain immigration laws.
But there is also the undeniable effect of the bully pulpit controlled by the president. When a president declares, as this president has for example, that health care insurance is a right, and presidential candidates propose to expand nearly universal education rights forward from elementary and secondary education to the college level, citizens ungrounded in the explicit constitutional limits of executive power become increasingly compliant to the repeated assertion of these newly pronounced rights — which are not delineated in the Constitution. This has had a cumulative effect on the electorate and its view of the presidency.
You may approve of the expansion of the powers of the presidency, or you may not. But one point is beyond debate: The office has become far more powerful than ever envisioned by the founding generation, or enshrined in our Constitution.
• Timothy E. Donner is founder and president of One Generation Away, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the vision of a free America by applying our founding principles to the issues of today.