Bench Memos

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The Perennial Publius, part 70


I couldn’t have planned this if I tried, but we come to one of the most important essays in the Federalist, No. 70, on the day after President George W. Bush has taken one of the most important actions of his presidency–an action taken in defense of the essential principle of the presidency and one of the most critical features of the Constitution.  I refer of course to the president’s veto of the fatally irresponsible supplemental appropriations bill of the Democratic Congress–and to its defense of the executive responsibility to wage war as the single accountable public official who can wage it successfully.  That executive authority is the subject of the essay we consider today.

Federalist No. 70 is characterized by a boldness of argument befitting its subject.  Alexander Hamilton–who I jokingly tell my students was the best president of the United States who was never president of the United States–begins with the blunt claim that “[e]nergy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.”  Energy in government, all can readily admit, is a necessity.  But why is such energy located in the executive?  Because by its nature the executive is the doing branch of government.  The other branches talk, deliberate, in some respects even decide and command–as to some things.  Only the executive does; only it makes good all that talk and deliberation.  If need be, it makes good the policies of the government on the bodies of those who stand in its way.  The names executive and executioner are not accidentally related.  Only the executive branch is called upon to kill people.

The central feature of the energetic executive, and the main subject of Federalist No. 70, is its unity–that all its power is concentrated in a single person.  Only thus can it achieve “[d]ecision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.”  The vigor of the executive–and thus of the whole government–will be sapped by any institutional arrangement that refers ultimate decisions about action to the discretion of multiple persons of equal or competing authority.  The executive, responsible for “the most important measures of the government, in the most critical emergencies of the state,” will be slower-moving, more indecisive, and more passive or reactive, exactly to the extent that plural decision-makers are involved.

It will also be less responsible.  Hamilton convincingly argues that the unity of the executive achieves two objects–both energy and responsibility.  Here is the original “buck stops here” argument.  Credit and blame will be concentrated in the same place where the decision-making power is located, in the singular president of the nation.  Presidents know that no matter what blundering intrusions on their authority are attempted, and even accomplished, by the other branches of government, the judgment of the people and of history will be that the blunders occurred on their watch.  This gives added force to the impulse of good presidents to serve the public interest–and it even helps to channel or constrain, in a good way, the impulses of mediocre presidents to serve only their own interest.

The Pelosi-Reid Democrats have had their moment.  Their attempt to muscle in on the president’s power and responsibility as commander in chief is proof of Hamilton’s wisdom: “In the conduct of war, in which the energy of the executive is the bulwark of the national security, every thing would be to be apprehended from its plurality.”

President Bush gets it–both the nature of our present war, and his duty under the Constitution.  In two sentences last night he summed up the correct understanding of the different responsibilities of the two branches of government: “I recognize that many Democrats saw this bill as an opportunity to make a political statement about their opposition to the war.  They’ve sent their message.”  Translation: They get to talk.  I have to do.

(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)


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