Has anyone noticed how much “governing” Presidents Trump and Obama have done via Executive Orders instead of the proper way, via legislation initiated and approved by Congress? The scope of executive orders, unilateral presidential decrees over which Congress has no say, has been steadily growing the last two decades. Many people love it when their guy is in office and simply bypasses Congress by issuing an executive order when he can’t get them to do what he wants. But is that really the way a democratic republic works? Sounds more like rule by the whim of one man.
Such orders are only operative while the president who issued them is in office. They can sometimes be stopped or delayed by court actions, but that’s about where any arguments that favor them end. Not only are these proclamations the unfettered rule of a single man over a supposedly democratic nation, they can have a massive effect on the economic, cultural, military, educational, and legal landscape. And they can be completely reversed by the next president. All this makes for potentially rapid, unpredictable change for the entire country and uncertainty about the longevity of policy.
NBC news ran a worthwhile editorial early this year arguing that while executive orders by Our Guy feel good, they are a tool of tyranny. Quartz wrote a similarly insightful article last year, identifying the danger as “the use of these orders as a work-around in policy areas where the president wants to do something, but only Congress has the authority to act”. What one might ask now is: with a president in office today who is less popular with his Congress than possibly all other recent presidents, why doesn’t Congress take advantage of this situation to strip or at least limit the presidency with regard to this gross abuse of executive power? Brandon Weichert explains how the founding fathers attempted in the constitution to diffuse power across multiple people, bodies, and branches for the very purpose of preventing the rule of the One Man.
America Needs a New Independence Day
The Fourth of July weekend is a time when Americans celebrate the anniversary of the United States’ independence. But, in the 242 years since achieving our liberty from the British Empire, our government has slowly become what it beheld. You see, while many erroneously claim that our move for independence from the British Empire was “revolutionary,” it was, in fact, far from revolutionary (in the sense of other famous revolutions, such as those that befell France and Russia – or even the “Cultural Revolution” that swept across campuses and major cities in the United States in 1968).
At its core, America’s war for independence was predicated upon the understandable desire for Americans to have equal and fair representation in Parliament. Initially, the colonists were generally opposed to separating from the Mother Country. But, as Andrew O’Shaughnessy documents in The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of Empire, King George III – far from the mad tyrant he’s depicted as in popular history – began as sympathetic to the American calls for greater representation in Parliament.
Yet the Boston Tea Party was viewed by King George as a terrible waste of tea (and a clear sign of disloyalty), so his opinion on the situation in the American colonies changed from that of reluctant participant in the matter to the leading war hawk. Naturally, the more intractable the king’s position became, the farther the Americans were pushed into full independence.
As the Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence:
We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United States are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.
What began as a serious – though entirely rectifiable – complaint rapidly devolved into what we (erroneously) call the Revolutionary War. It’s a great tale we tell ourselves (and the world). To be sure, I would not have opted to remain a part of the British Empire. The values and beliefs that the Founding Fathers based this country upon, I believe, are superior to all other notions in the world.
Unfortunately for us, the story doesn’t end there.
Writing in his 2013 magnum opus, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America, F.H. Buckley makes the controversial (though accurate) argument that the United States has mostly come full circle in its great experiment with democracy. (For the record, the United States is, technically, a constitutional republic, which is classified by most political scientists as a representative form of democracy.) While the country did start out as a relatively free system, it rapidly devolved into what George Mason famously called an “elective monarchy.”
Buckley (evoking Mason’s fears) believes that the United States revolted against crown rule only to revert back to crown rule in the form of an all-powerful executive branch that supersedes all other aspects of American life and government. Sure, we change presidents every four to eight years, but the drift into elective monarchy continues unabated. There are nearly 2.5 million federal employees (excluding military personnel) that serve in the executive branch, and the federal register of regulations numbers in the many thousands of pages. Meanwhile, thanks to a series of bipartisan spending bills over the years, the power and scope of the “elective monarchy” has only increased.
This was not what our Founders fought the British for!
The idea behind the American system of government was to diffuse as much power as possible away from Washington and into the hands of the local and state authorities. Within the federal government, while all three branches (the executive, legislative, and judicial) were equal, the authors of the American Constitution were obsessed with the potential for an “elective monarchy.” James Madison wrote in Federalist no. 51 of the concept that having co-equal branches of government would counteract the ability of any one branch to supersede the other.
Yet, as Buckley rightly points out, “the legislature is composed of many people, and the executive of only one,” and “it is more difficult for a group of people to coordinate on a course of action than it is for a single person.”
The Framers believed that the Congress was the best antidote to the evils of an “elective monarchy” in the executive branch. The same holds true today.
Ever since the rise of the Progressive movement at the turn of the twentieth century, the American presidency has become increasingly imperial in its disposition. By the middle of the last century, the president’s power was so great that he could effectively take the country into a ruinous war (Vietnam) with little congressional oversight. As the president’s power has reached epic new levels, congressional power has faded. Thus, we have begun to look more like the British Empire of yesteryear than the liberty-loving republic of our Founders.
Just as the Continental Congress guided us through the last Independence Day, today’s Congress will have to chart a course away from the monarchical presidency. God help us all. Yet it is a fight worth waging – if only because we risk embodying the tyranny that our Founders bled to free us from.
A new Independence Day is needed – not one delivered by force of arms, but one heralded by enlightened legislation. Otherwise, the republic will be lost forever, and a new sort of empire – an incoherent one that preaches liberty but tyrannizes its citizenry – will be unleashed upon the world.