Is A Stronger Executive The Cure For What Ails American Government?
David Brooks thinks he’s figured out the solution to the perpetual issues of gridlock, Congressional inaction, and a general failure to deal with whatever it might be that he and his fellow residents of the Acela Corridor think are the “important issues.” All we need, he says, is a stronger Executive Branch:
This is a good moment to advocate greater executive branch power because we’ve just seen a monumental example of executive branch incompetence: the botched Obamacare rollout. It’s important to advocate greater executive branch power in a chastened mood. It’s not that the executive branch is trustworthy; it’s just that we’re better off when the presidency is strong than we are when the rentier groups are strong, or when Congress, which is now completely captured by the rentier groups, is strong.
Here are the advantages. First, it is possible to mobilize the executive branch to come to policy conclusion on something like immigration reform. It’s nearly impossible for Congress to lead us to a conclusion about anything. Second, executive branch officials are more sheltered from the interest groups than Congressional officials. Third, executive branch officials usually have more specialized knowledge than staffers on Capitol Hill and longer historical memories. Fourth, Congressional deliberations, to the extent they exist at all, are rooted in rigid political frameworks. Some agencies, especially places like the Office of Management and Budget, are reasonably removed from excessive partisanship. Fifth, executive branch officials, if they were liberated from rigid Congressional strictures, would have more discretion to respond to their screw-ups, like the Obamacare implementation. Finally, the nation can take it out on a president’s party when a president’s laws don’t work. That doesn’t happen in Congressional elections, where most have safe seats.
We don’t need bigger government. We need more unified authority. Take power away from the rentier groups who dominate the process. Allow people in those authorities to exercise discretion. Find a president who can both rally a majority, and execute a policy process.
Being something of a Hamiltonian by nature, it’s not really that much of a surprise that Brooks would be a fan of a strong Executive. At the same time, though, the nature of his argument here should be disturbing to anyone who still regards the Constitution as something more than just a lovely piece of paper stored at the National Archives.
As has been noted here at OTB many times in the past, we already live in an era where the Presidency has assumed a far greater role in American government than it had an other time in our history. In large part thanks to the Congressional neglect in asserting the authority of the popularly elected branches of government as well as the growth of the regulatory state and the wide discretion given to the Presidency in foreign affairs in the wake of the Cold War and then the War On Terror, American Presidents have become far more powerful than the Founding Fathers ever intended them to be. Gene Healy documented how this came to be in his highly recommended book called The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power in which lays out the history of how the Executive Branch has assumed more and more extra-constitutional power throughout American history, usually in response to a crisis, and how the President. Shortly before the 2012 Election, Healy followed up that back with a short examination of how the Obama Administration has built upon the assumptions of power of its predecessors in the both the domestic and foreign policy spheres. That e-book is entitled False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the President. Healy notes, of course, that President Obama’s expansion upon the power grabs of his predecessors is no historical anomaly but is in fact what has become the norm ever since the so-called “Imperial Presidency” became part of our political system. Each President has built upon the powers that have been asserted by his predecessor in both the domestic and international spheres, and those assertions of power have largely been accepted by a Congress that seems unwilling to assert its own Constitutional authority in a real a significant manner.
This history is, I think, where Brooks’ entire argument falls apart. If the cure for our political problems truly were a stronger Executive, then how does he account for the fact that our political problems have actually increased as the Executive Branch has become more powerful and more authority has become more unified? If his thesis were correct, then the so-called “good government” that he and his fellow Acela traveling compatriots yearn for would would already be here, wouldn’t it? The fact that it clearly isn’t, and that things actually seem to have gotten worse as the Executive has gotten more powerful suggest strongly that this entire thesis is incorrect.
Even if the Brooks thesis were correct, though, and it was possible to that things would run more efficiently if the President didn’t have to rely so much on Congress to get things done, that still wouldn’t justify following the path that he lays out. Under our Constitution, it is the Congress that is supposed to have primary authority over policy matters, over what rules we operate under, and over how money is spent. The more that authority has been ceded, either willingly or not, to the President, the Executive Branch, and the Regulatory Agencies that operate outside the authority of Congress, the further we drift away from the entire idea of a representative democratic republic. I’d also argue that a more powerful Executive is one of the factors that leads, in part, to the gridlock that we see on Capitol Hill. When the authority that Congress has gets ceded more and more to the Executive Branch, the more likely it becomes that Members of Congress will use the power they have left, specifically things like the power of the purse and the Senate’s responsibility to confirm Presidential appointments to the Executive and Judicial Branches, to try to reclaim some of that authority. In a sense then, the dysfunction that Brooks dislikes so much is a direct consequence of the cure that he suggests.
The final point worth noting is that Brooks’ opinion seems to be one that is shared by the people he shares the Op-Ed page of The New York Times with. Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd, Gail Collins, and even Ross Douthat all seem to more or less fans of a strong Executive and dismissive of the messiness of the popular branches of government doing what the Constitution created them to do. They are certainly entitled to their opinions, but one would think that the Times would benefit from having someone with an opinion of American government that didn’t wish for an all-powerful Presidency and an weak and compliant Congress, especially since that point of view is completely at odds with what the Constitution established.