As Americans gather to celebrate Independence Day, it is a good time to take a moment and reflect on the importance of what that independence bought us – that being the freedom to create a government structure that separates power.
No matter what your side of the political divide, the fact is that the fortunes of politics will ebb and flow, but in the end it is in everyone’s best interests that political power be divided. More to the point, the very reason that our Constitution separates power is to prevent its arbitrary use. Specifically, executive power, since it resides in one individual.
It’s a pretty important thing. We fought a war over it.
But lately the news is regularly filled with the latest blustery statements from Obama about how “if Congress doesn’t act”, he will, along with edicts that fail to show any clear constitutional or congressional authority.
Obama repeatedly says that he only takes unilateral executive action because “Congress chooses to do nothing”. But choosing to “do nothing” is itself a choice. It means that a large enough group of people wanting to do “something” does not yet exist. In other words, the real problem is that they don’t want to do what Obama wants to do. Therein lies the problem.
If a president can re-interpret laws or apply them as he chooses, then what’s the purpose of having laws? What’s the purpose of a pretense of the separation of powers and having a legislative branch to make law? The reality is that lawmaking in a representative republic involves compromise and trade-offs among various factions of society to get a majority to eventually agree on a final product. Otherwise, people see the laws as lacking legitimacy because society has no “buy-in”.
Of course the boundaries between executive and legislative power are always in tension, but Obama has come to find the boundaries inconvenient, so he simply ignores them. He wants to take shortcuts. Someone should remind him that he resigned his “law-making” gig several years ago in order to run for his current “faithfully executing the laws” job.
The Supreme Court has sent him a few hints, thirteen unanimous ones since 2012 to be exact, the most recent regarding his abuse of presidential recess appointments and his claim that he gets to decide when the US Senate is actually in session. By the way, “unanimous” includes both of the Justices that were appointed by Obama.
But there are actually people among us not named Obama who believe that the presidency should be stronger.
Believe it or not, the New York Times’ ersatz conservative David Brooks actually suggested that we needed to “make the executive branch more powerful” in order to make the federal government more effective. He claimed that, because our political leaders can’t reach conclusions, we should give more power to the executive branch, since bureaucrats “are more sheltered from the interest groups than congressional officials”; have “more specialized knowledge”; are “removed from excessive partisanship” and would have more latitude to “respond to their own screw-ups”.
Oh, really? Anyone even remotely familiar with any news related to the IRS, Obamacare, Solyndra, the Veterans Administration, or any number of other executive branch scandals would know that this is just so much piffle.
The problem is not that the President doesn’t have enough power, but that Washington has far too much power – and covets even more.
Among the key elements of our political system are stability and predictability. People can have relative certainty about tomorrow being free from capricious radical changes because some bureaucrat woke up on the wrong side of the bed, or decided that he needed to do a favor for a political patron, or create some new political advantage for his president via-a-vi the opposition.
But that level of confidence is eroding. The more powerful the presidency becomes – no matter who is president – the higher the stakes will be in every election, along with matching levels of vitriol and odds of radical change and instability.
There’s a name for such places. They’re called “banana republics”.
Those who want to strengthen the presidency are really just people who are tired of not getting their way through the regular political process. But the fact is that, in order to protect liberty, our political system was intentionally designed to move slow and require broad support to get anything done. It’s a feature, not a bug.
Don’t like it? There are plenty of countries with an autocratic El Presidente who will be happy to accommodate.
We don’t need to become one of them.