Friday, January 16, 2009

Weakening the Presidency?

While I certainly understand the revulsion against an all-powerful presidency in the aftermath of the last 8 years, I don't really agree with Garrett Epps' call to reform the institution. Claiming that the powerful presidency was one of the Founders' greatest mistakes, he hopes for constitutional amendments that would, among other things, make the Attorney General an elected official in 4 year cycles on off-term elections, eliminating the electoral college, and reducing the lame-duck period after a presidential election to one week. Despite the various merits of these individual proposals (certainly the Attorney General idea is interesting and the electoral college obvious), let's not overreact to a strong presidency.

From the nation's beginning, presidents have tried to expand the power of the office. While this reversed itself during the Gilded Age, probably every president since Theodore Roosevelt has done his best to locate power in the presidency. I'm not sure about the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover trio, but the point is valid.

The problem is that Congress consistenly allows the presidency to do so. Possibly the most egregious violation is the 1964 War Powers Act, with the Patriot Act not far behind. If Congress wants to take back the power, it should. It does have the power to do so. But of course Congress is always divided while the presidency is not. Plus the president has a bully pulpit.

On the other hand, I wonder if Epps will feel bad if an Obama presidency using his presidential power to repeal Bush's laws, use the U.S. military in humanitarian crises, and create social programs that might not be able to pass Congress. Does he oppose Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs and how strongly FDR led out of two crises? I certainly don't. I like a powerful president when the nation needs something done. Could Congress lead us through a national crisis? I don't know of any evidenceto suggest that would work well.

Via Yglesias, who also says something interesting things about the piece.