Matthew Sanders: Rising executive power backs Congress into corners

Published: Friday, Feb. 21 2014 7:09 p.m. MST

Growing presidential power has diminished the role of Congress, which is forced to operate in frantic, emergency conditions. The presidency can help restore the trust and dignity of the Congress by adhering to constitutional restraints.

Evan Vucci, AP

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The people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived. — James Madison, Federalist #49

Almost 20 years ago, I saw firsthand the failings of excessive power. As part of an advisory team, I worked with FYR Macedonia government ministers to help guide the excruciatingly shift from their failed socialist health system toward a system suitable for a market democracy. While its people had peacefully separated from Yugoslavia in 1991, the country still strained to break free from its heritage of centralized control.

As a graduate student in the late ’90s, I spent a week at the Ecole Nationale D'Administration, France's elite school for training technocrats to manage France's semi-presidential constitutional republic. While there, French government ministers briefed us on a Socialist Party policy to reduce the workweek to 35 hours to force inclusion of more workers and reduce the country's chronic 10-11 percent unemployment rate. Even classmates who typically argued for interventionist policies expressed dismay at the power so few wielded to drastically alter markets.

These experiences gave me ground-level views into different fashions of government, and both inspired and troubled me. Humankind's drive for reform, improvement and liberty inspired me. The tragic results of centralized authority used to perpetuate power troubled me.

In the United States, we depend upon a remarkable system of participatory, citizen-led government that involves legal checks and balances of power.

Last year, only 10 percent of Americans expressed confidence in Congress and falling trust in other core institutions. As the Deseret News recently editorialized, Congress has been further weakened by an emboldened presidency that has our system of government out of balance.

One way to gauge executive power is its pocketbook. Today, government spending hovers around 21 percent of GDP, with 55 percent of it going out as mandatory payments for social programs like Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps and Social Security and another 24 percent going to defense. Marketable U.S. government debt surpassed $17 trillion in January 2014.

Notwithstanding all the mental gymnastics performed by the likes of Paul Krugman, sensible people learned as children that "debt is a monster" and understand that debt can't be outrun, it must be paid. And if for no other reasons than it diverts Congress from thoughtful deliberation to modernize government processes, or debate a health care reform law openly, then it is indeed very, very costly.

For instance, with a distracted and disheveled Congress ever available as a scapegoat for gridlock, President Obama recently signed an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractor employees, circumventing Congress in its stewardship over budget and appropriations.

The executive order isn't the issue, Obama's 168 orders are on par with recent presidents, and certainly less than FDR, with 3,522, and Wilson with 1,803 orders. No, it is more about the wedge it drives, yet again, between the branches of government.

The final troubling element involves inaction. In the cases of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the Controlled Substances Act, this presidency has openly refused to defend or execute law or portions of laws duly passed by Congress.

A president is free to drive an agenda via political influence and persuasion. He also may wield the veto pen when he disagrees with legislation. But the president does not have the right to act as a conscientious objector and simply flout the law by refusing to enact or enforce it. Doing so further erodes the constitutional power and freedom of congressional representatives.

Growing presidential power through fiscal and social policy actions has diminished the role of Congress, which is forced to operate in frantic, emergency conditions. The presidency can help restore the trust and dignity of the Congress by adhering to constitutional restraints.

Matthew Sanders studied economics at Brigham Young University and business and government at Harvard University. He is a GM at Deseret Digital Media's Publisher Solutions group solutions.deseretdigital.com, msanders@deseretnews.com or @Sanders_Matt

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