Executive power expansion began soon after the republic’s inception and accelerated in recent decades to a new level. The core constitutional “balance of power” principle may be at risk.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. authored “The Imperial Presidency” in 1973 and coined a phrase that is increasingly used to describe presidents since Reagan. A Google search for “imperial presidency” returns 84,000 hits for Reagan; 130,000 for Clinton; 188,000 for Bush (may capture both); and 225,000 for Obama.
Executive power growth in recent decades has been enabled by a failure of Congress to assert its authority, diminished secretariat independence, the vesting of the bureaucracy in executive power growth, and the coopting of the media.
A modern shift in congressional loyalty from the institutions of the House of Representative and Senate to political party has permitted an uncontested expansion of executive power. In the past the Congress, in a bipartisan manner, rabidly defended its constitutional authority and prerogatives from the encroachment by the executive branch.
In 2007 the New York Times editorial board extolled the danger of growing presidential power, and encouraged congressional assertion of its authority stating, “Members of Congress should not be intimidated into thinking that they are overstepping their constitutional bounds. If the founders were looking on now, … it is George W. Bush, who would seem less like a president than a king.” The concern remains valid today, but the cast of characters have changed.
In the past the secretariats were viewed as a counterweight to the Executive Office of the President. Secretaries were often noted authorities who possessed independent clout and stature independent of the president. In recent decades cabinet secretaries and their appointee subordinates are often political sycophants or political allies whose stars are tied to the president.
John F. Kennedy selected his brother as Attorney General. Richard Nixon selected his campaign manager who later went to prison. Their loyalty to the president was greater than their devotion to the law. The Department of Justice in particular should be more independent and subject to oversight by the Congress.
The federal bureaucracy has grown so large and powerful that it is now often called the fourth branch of government, but it no longer offsets the power of the president. The Washington bureaucracy is more partisan and its fate is tied directly to the preservation and expansion of the executive branch. Washington D.C. and its surrounding suburbs and workforce are the richest in America and have a vested interest in sustaining and growing the federal executive branch.
The declining resources of the traditional media to conduct independent and rigorous inquiry and analysis results in a dependence upon the executive branch for access and news feed that serves the growth of the executive branch. The traditional media have become a part of the political and cultural elite that lives in the same communities with and socializes with the very same government officials and lobbyists they were intended to watch with a critical eye.
Every American, regardless of affiliation, has an interest in ensuring a balance of power is maintained in our federal government. The ever expanding power of the executive branch of government is a threat to constitutional principles and liberty. It is in the interests of all Americans to restore balance, regardless of political alignment with a sitting president, or the legislative branch will become irrelevant and the president more akin to a king.