Not Your Great-Grandfather’s Presidency
The job laid out by the Framers in Article II of the Constitution has expanded a mite.
After watching the two-part opener to the Democratic debate season, Dave Schuler wonders “Who’s Running for President?” He’s clear on who the declared candidates are. Rather, he think they’re running for a different office.
As defined in the Constitution the president has the following jobs:
pretty much in that order. As originally defined the president is not a prime minister, the head of his political party and, honestly, just a stand-in for it. He or she is not the domestic policy-maker-in-chief. Not the symbol of the country, its inspiration, or its collective parent. Not a monarch.
- Commander-in-chief of the military
- Foreign policy
- Managing the federal government
- Making appointments
- Signing bills enacted by the Congress into law
From the short shrift the actual jobs the president does has received you would think they’re running for some other job entirely.
The seat of government is not the White House but the Capitol. Some would say the Rayburn Building. The most powerful person in government not the president but the Speaker of the House, closely followed by the Senate Majority Leader.
While that’s certainly the arrangement that the Framers had in mind, it hasn’t worked that way in my lifetime. Arguably, it hasn’t worked that way in living memory.
It’s no accident that the section of the Constitution dealing with the Congress, Article I, not only comes first but is by far the longest. The legislature was indeed intended to be—by far—the most powerful part of the Federal government. Indeed, the first word of the First Amendment to the Constitution was “Congress.”
But Presidential power started expanding right away.
Our first President, George Washington, declared that there were “Inherent Powers” in his office that weren’t listed in the Constitution because they were simply understood to reside with a chief executive. Our third President, Thomas Jefferson—the leader of the small government faction among the Founding generation—doubled the size of the country with the Louisiana Purchase. He fully understood that he lacked the Constitutional authority to do it but simply rationalized that it was for the good of the country.
It’s debatable at what precise moment to relationship Dave describes in his last paragraph flipped, such that the White House, not the capitol, was considered the seat of government. But if it hadn’t happened earlier, it was certainly the case during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration and has been that way ever since.
But it arguably happened well before then:
Beginning in the early 1920s, the President began to assume more prominence in setting the federal budget. The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 gave the President overall responsibility for budget planning by requiring him to submit an annual, comprehensive budget proposal to the Congress; that act also expanded the President’s control over budgetary information by establishing the Bureau of the Budget (renamed the Office of Management and Budget in 1971). By contrast, the Congress lacked institutional capacity to establish and enforce budgetary priorities, coordinate actions on spending and revenue legislation, or develop budgetary and economic information independently of the executive branch.
This literally reverses the Constitutional process. The budget is supposed to start with the House of Representatives, work its way through the Senate, and then presented to the President as a fait accompli. But Congress voluntarily handed a major part of its responsibility to the Executive simply because the daily execution of government had gotten too vast and complex to be managed from the legislature. Congress thereby went from being the primary mover in domestic policymaking—which is to say, essentially all policymaking at the time—to an overseer of an Executive with first-mover advantage.
By the time the New Deal and World War II were in full swing two decades later, that was exponentially more true. Federalism as we’d known it was all but dead and the central government radically expanded to manage the economy and the war effort. The latter contracted temporarily; the former has continued to grow.
None of this means that Congress isn’t powerful. It has all the tools necessary to check the President and, indeed, dominate the domestic agenda. Occasionally, as it did during the immediate aftermath of Watergate and to a lesser extent in the aftermath of the 1994 midterms, Congress will assert itself. But the Speaker of the House has a far tougher job asserting her will over the legislature than the President does over the Executive.