Presidential power is always an interesting discussion. It isn’t merely the kind of talk we leave to high school civics or college government classes: we break it out every presidential election season. We test our candidates, kicking their proverbial tires to see where they stand on the institution, how they see themselves amongst our nation’s previous leaders, and to see what they have to say to us today. The role of the President of the
As I was getting ready for work today, I was watching this week’s Bill Moyers Journal (Thank God for DVR!) which had presidential power as its subject. The two guests, Charles Fried (former Solicitor General under Reagan and current Harvard professor) and Fritz Schwarz (member of the Church Commission that investigated Nixon) discussed the place of the presidency in terms of the Constitution in light of the Bush/Cheney Junta. What was really enlightening was the conversation they didn’t have, though Fried tried several times to start it: the president’s power as relative to the other branches.
If you take a quick glance at the Constitution, you can quickly see two important indicators of the
Fried was eager to discuss the relationship of presidential power to the Constitution by suggesting that the place of politics is the dance between where one branch over-extends its authority. For him, a president must ignore a Congress that has no Constitutional authority over his/her business in that particular arena. What he suggests is, not surprisingly, a relative libertarian view of politics: one has the power to do anything so long as it isn’t somebody else’s. This view favors the executive branch because one person controls the entire branch of government: the president’s decision stands, as opposed to majority building in the other branches (five, fifty-one, and two hundred eighteen). This grants it more freedom to act and respond. We love that behavior in figure-heads and despise it in despots.
But the Constitution is the basis for a government of controlled action, restrained by a process that encourages not only legalism, but liberty. Functioning slowly means that proper and respectful decisions are made with the greatest interest at heart. How often has following your impulses led you astray? Candy bars at the checkout counter are the least of our worries from an unhinged president!
The center of the discussion, however, revolves around that one word: relationship. As it stands, the federal government has broken itself down into these three steps: President demands action of Congress, Congress refuses, and the President acts anyway. Besides showing a blatant disregard for the entire system (and he dare call us unpatriotic!), he is daring the Congress to move. Congress, acting as a battered housewife who can’t bare to leave her homicidal drunk of a husband, has pared down its response to two things: cut funding or impeachment. Since they long ago took impeachment off of the table, they are operating with what they are now calling “the power of the purse”.
Not only is this a horrible image (purse, really? You couldn’t use ‘wallet’ or ‘pocketbook’?) that falls prey to the Republican frame of a cowboy president and his housewife named ‘The Congress’, but it suggests a relationship that is detached and separate from the government. It suggests that Congress isn’t a legislature, but a set of accountants that need only sign the checks. This isn’t the language of equals, but of servitude, submission, and abusiveness.*
[*I am not suggesting that purse=wife-beating, but that the frame of the Strict Father model, of which Bush is the poster boy, has an unsettling relationship with violence. The very image of the president as cowboy, ‘rustling up’ the terrorists and “smoking them out of their holes” relies on images of not only Wild West gunfights, but of military combat of an aggressor (the U.S.) against an enemy in hiding. This image is not a defensive posture, but a trumped up abuser.]
The power that Congress has collected is to totally strip the President of his/her ability to function. It can remove anything from the budget that they don’t want. They can tell the president where every penny is to go. And if the president ignores them? S/He can be fired. Former presidents are at their best when they compliment and smooth-talk. They tell Congress what it wants to hear. S/He flatters it by suggesting that it has lost weight and never looked so hot. Presidents are at their worst when they demean, reject, and abuse Congress—the closest element in our (small r) republican government to a democratic voice.
The U.S. Congress is the most potent and powerful body in the world. Its position on debt-relief, public health, trade, and environment not only affect the world, but directly change the world. This body is striking, ravishing, and its beauty is without peer. Fixing the