Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Expansion of Presidential Power

Presidential power is one of the mysteries of the American political system, certainly not justified or suggested in the United States Constitution. The last thing the framers of the Constitution wanted was a king, an American George III, with the power to tax, to levy armies, to initiate wars. Yet that is our current system and presidential power is growing as the democratic spirit weakens under the pressures of maintaining world-wide hegemony.

The ultimate presidential power: only the president can order the use of a nuclear weapon against an enemy he identifies, at a moment he chooses, for reasons he alone finds adequate. To give it practical effect the president is always accompanied by an aide carrying a briefcase containing the authorization codes to fire one or all of America's nuclear weapons. The president is not required to consult anyone. Given the strength of America's nuclear arsenal, the president can destroy the entire human species and end all life on planet Earth. This enormous personal power has belonged to all presidents since 1945.

Now President Obama seeks to expand his solitary power to the domestic economic and financial sphere, seeking control of the money supply for his unilateral use and control.

This month President Obama plans to ask Congress to give him and future presidents the power to delete individual items from appropriation bills. Many previous presidents have sought to seize the power of the purse. Here is where it now resides. The U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 7, “All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives…..” subject to amendment by the Senate, the right of the president to veto, and the right of the Congress to override the veto.

That is why the Supreme Court in 1998 ruled a line-item veto unconstitutional. The constitutional responsibility of the president is to execute the laws passed by the people's representatives, the Congress of the United States. Now Obama wants the Congress to surrender part of its primary responsibility.

This constitutional change is most often put forward by Republican presidents. The attempt by this Democratic president to increase his vast presidential power tends to prove Lord Acton's famous maxim that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Weakening our division of powers may result in greater efficiency, but would clearly diminish the plan of the founding fathers to guard against the usurpation of authority by any one of the three branches of the federal government. Take away the power of the purse from Congress and it would become little more than a club for debate, the direct representatives of the people would be shorn of any significant power. And who can guarantee that the White House will not make appropriations based in part on political pressures and electoral calculations as the Congress does now.

In fact, for many years, the executive branch has found ways to modify the intent of congressional appropriations. Sometimes the president and his minions failed to spend the money, sometimes they chose the contractors, sometimes they speed or slow the rate of expenditure, sometimes they modify the project in ways that transform it and leave it to the undermanned Congress to discover the discrepancies.

Finally, giving any president increased power over appropriations might increase the growing number of presidential wars. A Library of Congress study identified 234 military actions between 1798 and 1993 of these by US Armed Forces abroad. Only five of these wars were declared by Congress as required by the U.S. Constitution. The Library of Congress calls those not declared by Congress presidential wars. Three are being fought right now in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. If presidents had appropriating power to finance more wars, we might be fighting in more of the 147 countries in which we have military bases.


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