By Nathan Tucker
“The contest, for all ages, has been to rescue liberty from the grasp of executive power,” warned Daniel Webster. “Through all this history of the contest for liberty, executive power has been regarded as a lion which must be caged,” he continued, “it has been dreaded, uniformly, always dreaded, as the great source of its danger.”
The fundamental lesson of history is that freedom and the protection of God-given unalienable rights are not the norm but the exception. Democracies are fleeting, and America is hardly immune to the historic reality that all republics have eventually dissolved into dictatorships.
In an attempt to postpone this inevitability, the Founding Generation established a written federal constitution with grants of limited, enumerated powers and counteracting checks and balances. In crafting the nature of the executive branch, the the Constitution bestowed on the President twelve powers:
- He may exercise a qualified veto.
- He shall be Commander in Chief.
- He may require the written opinion of cabinet members.
- He shall have power to grant pardons.
- He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate, to make treaties.
- He shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, judges, and all other officers of the United States, and shall have power to fill vacancies that may occur during a Senate recess.
- He shall give Congress the state of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.
- He may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them.
- He may, in case of disagreement between both Houses, with respect to the time of adjournment, adjourn them to such time as he shall think proper.
10. He shall receive ambassadors and other public ministers.
11. He shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.
12. He shall commission all the officers of the United States.
That’s it–only twelve grants of authority, none of which involve implementing one’s own domestic policy agenda. The president’s sole responsibility towards legislation was to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” As drafter Roger Sherman noted, “the executive magistracy [w]as nothing more than an institution for carrying the will of the legislature into effect.”
Joining him, James Wilson argued that the “only powers he considered strictly executive were those of executing laws.” Echoing these sentiments, James Madison stated that the president should have “power to carry into effect the national laws…and to execute such other powers ‘not legislative nor judiciary in their nature’ as may from time to time be delegated by the national legislature.”
In contrast, the modern (unconstitutional) welfare/administrative state produces presidents who craft legislation guised as executive orders and preside over legions of unaccountable, unchecked bureaucrats who churn out multitudes of new legislation each year. The fatal reality of social democracies is that there are far more lawmakers in the executive branch than there are in the legislative branch.
When this happens, the legislative branch becomes a mere nuisance, a road bump in the delivery of cradle to grave nannyism. This dysfunctional system leads to a chief executive who routinely promises that “If Congress won’t act, I will.”
When Washington promises to solve all our problems for us but fails to do anything but bicker, the electorate becomes ripe for a political savior. It is simple supply and demand—the electorate wants their Uncle Sugar Daddy, and a single executive is in a far better position to provide their fix than 535 squabbling congressmen.
When Washington becomes the center of all political power, the leadership the public expects cannot be provided by the petty benchwarmers in Congress. It can only be delivered by a single leader that leaves Congress castrated of all but an imaginary veto over the administrative state. The president acts, and Congress merely watches and complains.
Democracy lies at death’s door when the election of a new autocrat, rather than congressional action, is the only realistic hope of altering executive branch lawmaking. Ironically, congressional attempts at utopia have, in the end, only weakened it vis-à-vis the president.
The only cure to this elective monarchy is to destroy the myth that Washington has any authority, moral or constitutional, to interfere with our lives. Unless the temple of statism in Washington is destroyed, it will eventually be subjected to the rule of a single high priest. And like too many religions, statism neither tolerates dissent nor rival ideologies.