V.5: The Power of the American President

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The Power of the US President

Is the power of the American President too great?

In America, a president is beyond the control of the public until the end of the four year term. So does the power of the American president threaten the liberties of the public? On the other hand, is the executive branch bureaucracy beyond the control of either the president or the public?

America’s founders gave the president the power to control the executive branch for a very clear reason. Otherwise we could not hold the president responsible for the actions of that branch. And until the 1880s, the president had the power to fill all executive bureaucracy positions, called the Spoils System. But then there was a man who believed President Garfield owed him a political debt but did not give him the bureaucratic position he asked for. So he assassinated the president. (The Spoils System)

As a result, Congress passed the Pendleton Act. That established a non-partisan commission to evaluate all bureaucracy candidates based on merit. Today, that commission, not the president, fills all but the most senior positions. The president appoints only those senior positions, and the Senate approves or disapproves those appointments.

Is it possible for one person to have real control over something as large as the executive bureaucracy? Is that even more difficult now that the president cannot control the non-senior positions? There is much talk today of a “deep state” which is just another name for that bureaucracy. But it carries the connotation that bureaucrats have worked themselves into the government beyond the control of the president or the people. If that is true, then they can ensure their continued employment regardless of merit. So they can ensure their continued influence over our lives as well.

America is controlled both by laws imposed by the legislature and by regulations imposed by agencies in the executive bureaucracy.

Those Agencies have tremendous power. They pass between 4000 and 8000 regulations every year. Meanwhile, Congress passes only a few hundred laws each year, and has no input to the agencies’ regulations. (Noveck 2009, 130)

A citizen must act through the court system to challenge an agency regulation. And the Supreme Court has the ultimate authority to declare it legal or illegal based on that challenge. The president has input to those regulations only through the senior bureaucracy heads he or she appoints, so voters only have input once every four years through the presidential election. But many bureaucrats hold their positions for their entire career.

These facts become especially troubling in light of “regulatory capture”. That means the companies that the agencies are supposed to regulate capture or gain control of those agencies. This occurs because those companies have a very high stake in pushing regulators for favors. Meanwhile, the individual citizens affected by those companies have only a very small stake in the outcome. (Regulatory Capture)

The power of the American president also includes the presidential veto, which means he can prevent congressional bills from becoming laws.

The U.S. Constitution allows Congress to override a veto by a two-thirds vote in both houses. According to the separation of powers doctrine, the president and executive branch should be separate from the legislative branch. However, the veto power falls under the checks and balances principle which reduces that separation by giving each branch some control over the other branches. Otherwise one branch might be able to draw all government power to its self.

America’s founders gave the president the veto power mainly because he must be able to protect himself from legislation that would give Congress power over the executive branch. Some also add that it was needed for someone with nation-wide representation to limit bills intended to profit only specific states. So while the president heads the executive branch, the veto gives him considerable additional power in the legislative branch. His legislative power is demonstrated by the fact that only about seven percent of vetoes have ever been overridden by Congress. (Veto)

It should also be obvious that Congress would have passed many other bills, except that they knew the president would veto them. All these constitutional rules make great sense and have served us well, but we could alter them without removing their effect entirely. That is, we could pass a constitutional amendment reducing the two-thirds (which is 66 2/3 percent) requirement to perhaps 60 or even 55 percent. This would reduce the president’s power and increase that of Congress. In other words, we could give more power to the more direct representatives of the people.

Do you believe there is a “deep state” that’s beyond the power of the American president and the American voters?

Do you think the president should have more (or less) control over the bureaucracy? Should voters have more control of the bureaucracy? Should either the president or Congress have more control over executive agency regulations? Do you think it should be easier (or harder) for Congress to override a presidential veto? Are there other ways to improve the balance of power in our national government?

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Noveck, Beth Simone. 2009. WIKI Government. Harrisonburg, VA: Brookings Institution Press.

Regulatory Capture. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulatory_capture (accessed Oct. 14, 2020)

The Spoils System. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoils_system (accessed Oct. 14, 2020)

Veto. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veto (accessed Oct. 14, 2020)

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