Tuesday, May 24, 2016

bruce wilder 05.23.16 at 5:44 pm

RP @ 36

Constitutionally, the American office of the President is a weird chimera of 1.) a constitutional monarch functioning as a ceremonial head of state while department heads and Congress critters take care of real policy in committee, and 2.) a Roman Dictator, clothed in immense power, doing expediently whatever needs to be done to get the country thru a crisis and articulating sweeping rationalizations, which are then enacted over and over in policy.

Long before the present era, Presidents did some remarkable things. George Washington was able to establish a number of precedents that became part of the unwritten small-c constitution. Jefferson bought one-third of a continent for peanuts. Polk conquered another third. Lincoln did sweeping things by proclamation, including the oft-noted Emancipation Proclamation but also less oft-noted policies like instituting a blockade of Southern ports and, for a time, imposing martial law and spending large sums without Congressional appropriation. He exiled a sitting, opposition Congressmen to Canada at one point — something Obama might wish he could do.

Congress eventually ratified Lincoln’s actions mostly, but that’s how politics works in dictator mode. What would be a series of hurdles in routine mode become a series of confirming ratifications of radical change in dictator mode. (Even where Lincoln was found out-of-bounds, as in the case of declaring martial law, things got changed in his direction — Congress has since delegated the power to declare martial law to Presidents.)

FDR, as was discussed on CT in regard to a couple of recent Rauchway posts, took the country off the gold standard and (arguably defaulted on gold bonds). By Presidential edict, he closed all the banks and prohibited citizens from even owning monetary gold. Again, the blockades of Congressional and Court checks became a series of confirmatory ratifications and reinforcements of radical change.

I think Presidents are able to do more by executive order in part because we have come to understand the Presidency as the country’s CEO. In 1787, the only models of executive authority was monarchy and military generalship. Periodically, successful generals got the office, but the idea of the successful businessman as a model and the President as a business boss is only as recent as the emergence of multinational business corporations. Herbert Hoover was probably the first President to claim the office on the strength of his reputation as an efficiency-oriented executive and technocrat. It is not an experiment we have repeated much, but the idea that the President is the boss has become increasingly influential. (It is largely a false idea. Most of us have no experience anywhere near the C-suites and probably underestimate the extent to which those roles require the skills of a politician combined with the instinct to avoid interfering with the machine as long as it seems to be working.)

The other reasons the President relies more on executive orders has to do with the way responsible power has been draining out of Congress. Back in the day, Congressmen gained some degrees of freedom from being at the nexus of political conflict among opposing interests. If you were on the Banking committees, the big city investment banks would come to you; then the local banks, then the savings and loans, then the insurance companies, then the stock brokers, then the local chamber of commerce, then some do-gooder reform groups, and they would all press their conflicting agendas and desiderata — the key word being, “conflicting”. That doesn’t happen anymore. Congress critters are spokesmodels. Lobbyists commanding vast sums and deep staffs dictate legislation and their important clients have been winnowed by corporate homogenization and simple reduction of numbers. Universal banks unite insurance companies, brokerage, investment banking, commercial banking and probably fund that do-gooder reform group at least intermittently as well; and six or so dominate the banking sector.

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