James Leroy Wilson's blog

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Executive Power

A couple of weeks ago Harvey Mansfield made the case for a strong executive in the Wall Street Journal It is easy to dismiss Mansfield's twisting of the Constitution, for maintaining that it says what it doesn't. But the problem of the executive is found in all organizations.

This problem is that separating executive and legislative functions doesn't quite make sense. Group A makes a law, and expects Person B to enforce it. The legislative assembly or council is supposed to initiate policy, even though the chief executive is the public face of the organization. No matter how large an organization or its purpose may be, and no matter how responsibilities are divided, the President, Chairman, or other title-holder recognized as "person-in-charge" will always be tempted to exercise more discretionary power than the organization's constitution or by-laws authorize.

Yes, in our Constitutional system, the President has large leeway on policy, able to veto laws and decide how the laws are to be "faithfully" executed. Informally, many initiatives in Congress are actually the President's idea, and may have even been drafted by his Administration. But it will always be tempting for Presidents to grab as much power as they can to achieve what they want to achieve.

Sometimes Presidents will actually believe that their actions are justified by a crisis or by necessity. In some cases, they might even have a strong case. Ideally, it is up to Congress to rein in the President through the threat of impeachment. With that power, Congress has the ability to decide whether the President's actions were indeed "necessary" or whether he went too far.

Unfortunately, the fact that Presidents are chosen by the people inhibits Congress's ability to impeach tyrannical Presidents. (True, because of the Electoral College they do not always win the popular vote, but the people still vote for President.) Presidents can then point to their popular support, and impeachment would be criticized by large portions of the public for "overturning the election."

If the Electoral College was chosen differently - appointed by state legislatures, perhaps - we'd stand a better chance of more qualified and competent Presidents. But because they'd lack democratic "legitimacy," they could also be more easily held accountable by Congress. Congress would be less likely to let Presidents get away with exercising near-dictatorial power, because Presidents would lack a solid political base in the people. They would probably act more as managers rather than political leaders, and Congressional majority leaders would take the lead in policy.

Another way it would be easier for Congress to hold Presidents accountable is if we had a multi-party system where Presidents rarely win a popular majority and elections are frequently thrown to the House of Representatives. In that case, the President's base of support from the people and in Congress would be tenuous at best, and he would be less likely to initiate anything without a strong consensus in Congress.

As it is, however, we have a two-party system with popularly-chosen Presidents. As a matter of self-interest, this usually encourages steadfast loyalty to the President from his party in Congress, particularly if the President is popular in their own district. These party loyalists prevent impeachments and veto overrides, and are more wiling to let the President exercise as much power as he demands. To oppose a President of one's own party is against one's self-interest.

This makes it harder to remove a President than it is to fire presidents, CEO's, and chairpersons of private organizations.

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