The Presidency was designed to be a powerful executive, but changes over time may have given the President too much power. This paper demonstrates areas in which presidential powers have increased by design or circumstance, creating the danger of presidential overreach. These areas include war powers, economic powers, social and political powers. Checks and balances still exist, but legislative and judicial powers may need to be strengthened to restore three equal branches of government.
The executive branch of the United States currently has too much power. This is particularly noticeable in regard to foreign policy and especially war powers, but also domestic policy. It is potentially dangerous to have so much power in one branch of government. Specific examples will be reviewed to demonstrate ways in which the executive branch has overreached its authority.
The Power to Declare War
The Constitution says that Congress has war powers. However, with the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that was first passed after 9/11, the President was given significant leeway to fight terrorism, and he could easily abuse that authority (New York Times, 2013). As noted by the Times, Bush sent many people to Guantanamo, spied on Americans with insufficient judicial review, and of course he proceeded to wage war in Iraq even though they had nothing to do with 9/11 nor WMDs. Obama authorized drones to kill suspected terrorists in several Middle Eastern countries, including some who were American citizens. The number of innocent civilian casualties is still unknown. Now, as has been widely reported in the media over the past few weeks, Trump has dropped missiles on a Syrian air base, exploded the largest non-nuclear bomb ever, and threatened to go to war with North Korea. No single person is wise enough to understand when war is the best option. Although certainly not perfect, Congress is much better equipped to determine if war is truly necessary, if all other options have been exhausted, and if the people they represent are willing to fight a war.
The Power to Shape the Economy
Presidents also have too much power to affect the economy. As explained by Thoma (2016), Presidents appoint the members of the Federal Reserve. The intent was that appointments would be made by a variety of presidents, thus represent a variety of viewpoints. However, in practice, most quit before serving long, so recent presidents have had complete control of the Fed and thus strongly influence its policies. The Fed sets monetary policy, such as interest rates, that have a powerful effect on the health of the economy.
Other ways in which presidents affect the economy include the President’s fiscal policies, specifically financial market regulation, and taxing and spending. Although Congress is also involved in determining fiscal policies, they usually set broad parameters under which the President operates. So we have seen, for example, Trump stopping spending for government agencies he will probably dismantle; he has a budget provided by Congress, but no requirement he spend all of it. Likewise, the IRS is under the President’s control, so if he does not want strict enforcement of tax laws, there will be none; or he can target certain groups for enforcement while giving others a tax holiday. Since a certain level of tax receipts, wealth redistribution and government spending has proven beneficial for the economy, easing recessions, the President’s actions make huge differences in the ability of Americans to find work and pay bills.
The Power to Effect Social Justice
The President is in charge of the Department of Justice. With the passage of laws making civil rights violations federal crimes, the executive branch greatly expanded its power to intervene in local crimes. One could argue that some defendants have faced double jeopardy as they were tried for murder and then tried for federal hate crimes for the same act. However, in situations such as out of control police, who local prosecutors may hesitate to pursue because of their reliance on their testimony to convict other criminals, the only chance for justice for their victims may be at the federal level. Also, when local jurisdictions have essentially set up debtors’ prisons to bleed money from those who can least afford it, federal intervention can result in more equitable treatment, as happened with the DOJ report on Ferguson, Missouri (US Department of Justice, 2015).
On the other hand, a President who does not care about minorities nor the treatment of citizens, who wants to bully people into acquiescing to orders right or wrong, can announce that the DOJ will no longer investigate police crimes. This signals bully cops and other would-be civil rights violators that they can get away with hate crimes and the government will do little or nothing to stop them. Thus some minority groups will feel more targeted than ever and that they are not safe with such a President.
Presidential Political Power
Politically, the President also appears to have additional powers (Mott, n.d.). The President nominates judges with consent of Congress, but Congressional approval is often a rubber stamp. The President also influences the legislative process. He can use his bully pulpit to push for legislation. He signs bills with great fanfare or vetoes those he does not want, forcing a higher level of cooperation if Congress is to get their way. His political power has grown with the use of social media; now the President’s national reach will likely affect all Congressional representatives, particularly if constituents agree with him and add pressure.
On the other hand, checks and balances still exist. Many presidential actions still move through Congress; most notably, the budget. The courts also may check the President’s actions, although this is rare. Trump has faced challenges restraining his Muslim ban. Nevertheless, better restoration of legislative and judicial powers are warranted, such as repealing the AUMF and insisting the President talk to a skeptical Congress to prove the necessity of war.
- Mott, J. (n.d.). Presidential power. The Executive Branch. Retrieved from http://www.thisnation.com/textbook/executive-power.html.
- New York Times. (2013). Repeal the military force law. Sunday Review. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/10/opinion/sunday/repeal-the-authorization-for-use-of-military-force-law.html.
- Thoma, M. (2016). How much impact can a president have on the economy? CBS MoneyWatch. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-much-impact-can-a-president-have-on-the-economy/.
- U.S. Department of Justice. (2015). Justice Department announces findings of two civil rights investigations in Ferguson, Missouri. Justice News. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-announces-findings-two-civil-rights-investigations-ferguson-missouri.