How the presidency got out of control

March 25, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced

Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg

W.W. Norton & Co. / 416 pages / $27.95

In 1869, the staff of President Ulysses S. Grant consisted of a private secretary, two clerks, a messenger and a steward - at a cost to the taxpayers of $13,800. Grant added five military officers reassigned from the office of Gen. William T. Sherman. The president's staff would remain this size - or smaller - until 1897.

As the 21st century began, 400 men and women made up the White House staff. Another 1,400 worked in eight divisions of the executive staff located elsewhere. In matters domestic and international their boss, as President Bush is wont to say, had become "the decider."

In Presidential Power, Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, professors of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, re-examine the phenomenon Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called "the imperial presidency" more than 30 years ago. Since the 1970s, they argue, compellingly, things have gotten worse. The relentless - and irreversible -augmentation of presidential power, by Democrats as well as Republicans, has diminished democracy, reducing citizens to mere consumers of government services: "A crime has been committed, not violently or abruptly, but unobtrusively and by degrees."

For 150 years, presidential power ebbed and flowed. In prosecuting wars, Presidents James K. Polk, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson expanded executive authority. But Congress wrested back control over policy when the conflicts ended. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, the imperial presidency became institutionalized. All legislative proposals were vetted by the Bureau of the Budget. Roosevelt issued 286 executive orders between 1940 and 1945, including the internment of Japanese on the West Coast. He sent 50 destroyers to Great Britain, a year before Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act. And he ordered the trials of German saboteurs in military tribunals, bypassing civil courts.

By blurring the lines between peace and war, Crenson and Ginsberg point out, the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union allowed presidents to extend their power throughout the second half of the 20th century. The Department of Defense, the CIA and the National Security Council were created in 1947. A military-industrial complex pressured Congress to enact the president's legislative agenda. President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented the interstate highway system as a defense measure.

After the resignation of Richard M. Nixon, the House and Senate tried to restrain presidential power, passing the War Powers Act, the Budget and Impoundment Control Act, and the Freedom of Information Act. They had little or no impact.

"Presidents fail," Crenson and Ginsberg insist, "but the presidency adapts." Executive orders proliferated. Executive agreements replaced treaties, which require a two-thirds vote of the Senate. National Security Directives were not shared with Congress. Executive privilege gave the president a monopoly on information. Agencies made law by promulgating "regulations" for the environment and health and safety. Troops were deployed to Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Kosovo, and Iraq without declarations of war. And signing statements swept aside provisions of laws presidents didn't like. As 2005 ended, Bush had issued 500 of them.

Crenson and Ginsberg are less successful in explaining why ambitious presidents have been able to control the legislative process. Congress, they suggest, persuasively, is more likely to delegate because it lacks the technical expertise concentrated in the executive branch. But they fail to connect the dots between the decline in electoral participation and party discipline and the loss of power by the House and Senate.

Why is Congress - and not the president - dependent "on a politically engaged and active civil society"?

Wouldn't safe seats make incumbents more - not less - inclined to defend the prerogatives of their institutions against executive encroachment?

Do congressional investigations invariably focus on personal wrongdoing rather than substantive issues - even when the "loyal opposition" controls the House or Senate?

Even more problematic is their explanation for the deference of courts to presidents. Does the fact that federal judges now are recruited almost exclusively from the bench, the bar and the executive branch - and not (as in the 19th century) from legislatures - explain their less than zealous commitment to constitutional checks and balances?

Presidential Power was written midway through the reign of George 43. Like The Imperial Presidency, which Schlesinger completed at the height of Nixon's power, it draws a gloomy portrait about the prospects for democracy at a difficult moment in American history. In search of larger trends, Crenson and Ginsberg do not differentiate George W. from his predecessors, all of whom, they indicate, were "presidentialists."

Bush, they believe, "proved that he did not need the public in order to govern." Perhaps. But is it Pollyannish to believe that the president has over-reached? That he's discredited the theory of the Unitary Executive, signing statements, warrantless wiretaps, and preventive wars? And, albeit inadvertently, given our representative democracy its last best hope of rousing itself against an insidious and invasive presidency?

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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