Politics & Policy

Taming the Imperial Presidency

(Photo: Pixabay)
Over decades, the chief executive has become too dominant a figure. Congress should take back the power it has surrendered.

I have a new ritual on Sunday mornings. I wake up, get my coffee, fire up Twitter, and check in on the mental health of the pundit class. More often than not, President Donald Trump has tweeted something that outrages a whole mess of people, and the fallout can last for hours on end.

Part of me is amused by this. It is pretty clear that one of the purposes of Trump’s Twitter feed is to drive people crazy, and for the life of me, I don’t know why people rush to take the bait. They seem to go out of their way to do so, as well — taking him literally or figuratively, depending on what gins up the outrage.

Funny as this can be sometimes, I’m mostly angry over the whole spectacle. This is no way to run a republic. The executive office has become too ornamented, too powerful above the rest of us. The president is far too able to dominate our political discourse, not to mention the mental health of the nation, for his own purposes. Trump did not create this anti-republican monstrosity, but he is making use of it — apparently for the glorification of his own ego.

The good news is that a lot of people are having second thoughts about the “imperial presidency” in the Age of Trump. As a long-time critic of presidential governance, I thought I would offer my best case to restore the presidency to its proper, republican boundaries.

The greatest challenge of our constitutional system has been to make Congress responsible to the public interest. The Framers left us quite a challenge in this regard. Almost all of them favored bicameralism (Ben Franklin was a notable exception), believing that an estimable upper chamber was necessary to cool the hot-tempered lower chamber. Beyond that, the Framers ultimately used the Senate for the Great Compromise between the large and the small states. The result is a Congress that often cannot rouse itself to act, although it is imbued with great powers; and when it does act, it is inclined to respond to parochial interests.

From the start, the executive branch has sought to exert influence on Congress for the sake of national policymaking, though again the Framers did not make this easy. Whereas the British Crown in the 1700s had the power to dispense patronage to members of Parliament, the Constitution explicitly forbids members of Congress from holding executive positions. Still, George Washington effectively used James Madison and later Alexander Hamilton as de facto prime ministers to implement his agenda in Congress. Thomas Jefferson acted as his own prime minister, prompting his political opponents to gripe that major legislative decisions were settled over dinner and fine Madeira with the president at the White House.

Democratizing the presidency radically transformed the relationship of the executive to the Congress. This process occurred slowly in the first 40 years of the young republic, but by the time of Andrew Jackson, it was more or less complete. Jackson used his popular election to act as the tribune of the people. He claimed to speak for the citizenry when he imposed his will on Congress. This was inconsistent with the original vision of the Founders, which saw Congress as the popular branch that drove public policy.

Yet the full power of a popular president was not realized right away, for Jackson also unleashed the forces of party politics, which ended up taking control of the presidency itself. For a period in the 19th century, it was actually the Senate that was arguably the most powerful body in the nation. State parties reigned supreme, and senators ruled state parties. But that organization gave way in due course, and presidents like Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson revived the Jacksonian model of presidential governance.

The 20th century consolidated the dominance of the president, for several reasons. First, Congress gave up more and more power to the bureaucracy, thereby enhancing the power of the executive branch and, by extension, the president. Second, the presidency was fully liberated from state-party politics, as primaries and caucuses came to replace the “smoke-filled rooms.” Third, the permanent military establishment created after World War II naturally expanded the president’s authority and preeminence. Fourth, the president is uniquely situated to take advantage of mass-communications media. He can speak for his entire branch, whereas Congress and the courts are made up of multiple members who regularly disagree, thereby impeding the capacity of those branches to communicate to the people.

None of this means that presidential government makes all that much sense in our constitutional system. After all, the formal powers of the president over Congress have remained static. His national prominence has certainly grown, so that he is a bona fide celebrity, but he still must rely on moral suasion to get Congress to do what he wants. Constitutionally speaking, Congress still retains total legislative authority. Unitary presidential action boils down to changing the way existing laws are implemented. So the president might think he is “in charge” of the government, but he really is not.

Constitutionally speaking, Congress still retains total legislative authority. Unitary presidential action boils down to changing the way existing laws are implemented.

A more acute problem, at least of late, is the false presumption that the president can actually speak for the nation. This is, after all, a diverse country. It always has been, and right now it is more so than ever. Can a single person articulate the American interest? I am dubious. Instead, I think a diverse polity means that Congress is more reflective of the many national viewpoints. Congressional compromises are often messy, difficult to understand, and even harder to defend, but the legislative process is, in my view, the way that the balance of Americans can be made happy. On the other hand, a president who comes before the podium and says “America is this” or “America is that” is liable to alienate a large segment of the nation.

I think this helps explain the presidential derangement syndromes that have afflicted our body politic for nearly a generation. Charles Krauthammer defined Bush Derangement Syndrome as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush.” I think that there was an Obama Derangement Syndrome as well, and I am certain there is a Trump Derangement Syndrome.

Is that really such a surprise? The president, by virtue of being a single person, can reflect the values and interests of only a segment of the nation. When he goes before a microphone and represents that factional perspective as the national perspective, doesn’t it follow that people with a different way of looking at things would feel alienated?

And in 2017, it appears as though Trump’s communications strategy is to intentionally work people up, especially on Twitter. And what is the ultimate purpose of this? It does not seem to be to rouse Congress to work for the nation. Is it to settle whatever grievance he has on that particular morning?

Again, this is no way to run a republic. And while the rise of the imperial presidency has a certain ineluctable quality to it when viewed from the perspective of history, it is required by neither the Constitution nor the necessities of self-government. Put bluntly: We the people could tame the president if we really wanted to. Doing so would require us to focus more on Congress, encouraging members of that institution to reclaim the authority that they have surrendered over the last hundred years, and demanding that they wield that power for the good of the nation.

Congress, obviously, is an institution that has its own problems, which is why the executive branch has tried to influence it from the very beginning. But in the Age of Trump, a restored Congress seems especially appealing to me. At the very least, it is the branch of government that has the possibility of reflecting the abundance of values and interests we 330 million Americans have. And I think we would all feel better if we looked at the government and saw, at least in some respect, a reflection of ourselves — instead of a leader who seems to delight in the sheer pleasure of needlessly infuriating half the country.


Barack Obama’s Imperial Presidency

Executive Power — How to Reform the Imperial Presidency

Donald Trump’s Diminishing of the Presidency Is Good

Jay Cost is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.


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