The people versus the imperial presidency

Published 9:45 am Friday, July 26, 2013

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

In the United States, our ability to influence decisions made by the federal government depends on the careful balance among three institutions outlined by the U.S. Constitution. We are not a direct democracy. Starting in elementary school, this topic is covered multiple times during social studies classes.

So citizens who don’t know about this balance, or don’t understand it, only have themselves to blame. The information was openly discussed, capable of being understood even with the most incompetent of social studies’ teachers.

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However, looking at how dysfunctional Washington has become, it seems clear that many Americans have either forgotten what they learned about that balance or are willfully ignoring it because they find it inconvenient.

So here’s a quick review: Decisions in Washington, D.C., are made on our behalf by two branches of the government working together to enact laws. These two branches both have important roles to play, but neither can overrule the other without following specified processes, like when Congress overrides presidential vetoes.

The third branch — the legal system headed by the Supreme Court — passes judgment when decisions made by the other two branches run counter to the limitations set in place by the Constitution. The courts are also the guardians of civil rights and protection for minority groups of citizens and individuals.

What makes this balance so delicate is that the three branches do not have a completely equal share of power. The rules set in place give Congress — itself divided and balanced between the House of Representatives and Senate — a slight edge over the executive branch. Likewise, the legal system only gets involved when people challenge the enforcement of decisions within a courtroom. The writers and adopters of the Constitution did not want a repeat of the dictatorships and oligarchies that had ruled Europe for generations.

Over the past dozen years, this balance has been undermined, by both intentional and inevitable (though perhaps unintentional) grabs at power by presidents and their minions. Presidents have been enabled in this by Congress, which should have been challenging their power plays instead of playing political games.

Readers sympathetic or affiliated with the Tea Party movement probably agree with this analysis, at least as it applies to the current government. But are they willing to acknowledge how they themselves have contributed to this usurpation of power by the presidency? Because this is a much bigger issue than knee jerk reactions to Obama.

Where were those Tea Party Patriots 10 years ago, when George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the Republicans running Congress dismantled due process for those accused of being our enemies?

Or when energy policy and regulations were created behind closed doors by energy company executives? Where were they when the Patriot Act legitimized domestic spying and secret interrogations for those accused of terrorism? They only seem interested in speaking up when elected leaders are progressive and rise up out of the Democratic Party.

Why are they like this? Purity of doctrine! They only have respect for their own principles and values and are unwilling (or unable) to vote for any legislation tainted by ideas with which they don’t agree. They also seem to believe that having a few senators and control over the House of Representatives makes them the sole drivers of government policy.

Their unrelenting opposition to everything the Obama administration proposes contributes to the president’s accumulation of power. From their positions of power within Congress, they say “No” over and over again to the president’s nominees and any proposal he supports. They ignore important legislation (requiring compromise) but find time for symbolic votes opposing health care reform, energy efficiency, public broadcasting and environmental protection.

The partisan dysfunction that results from the lack of compromise only make governing by regulation and decree inevitable; it means that when important decisions have to be made, the executive branch makes them all by itself, with no congressional involvement.

Is this an unintended consequence of the Tea Party’s behavior in Congress? Of course it is. Their own doctrines oppose an imperial presidency. But their unwillingness to compromise leads us down that path anyway.

This political civil war is a problem that we all need to recognize and end, if we want the United States to remain a nation governed by democratic processes instead of an increasingly repressive series of temporary dictators.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.