In a memorable scene from the film “Lincoln,” actor Daniel Day-Lewis, portraying the 16th president, interrupts a heated debate among his advisers over efforts to pass the 13th Amendment, barring slavery, with a forceful reminder of just who they were dealing with: “I am the president of the United States, clothed in immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.”
Never mind that most historians don’t believe that Lincoln uttered these specific words, which led to the movie’s most dramatic moment. Lincoln was engaged in an all-out legislative effort to secure a constitutional change that would outlast the wartime presidential authority under which he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves.
At some point, every president reaches a point at which they push against the scope of their authority. The administration of Franklin Roosevelt created the Executive Office of the President, enabling a significantly larger staff and an executive branch power structure. It’s been seen as a defining moment in the development of the “Imperial Presidency.” Predecessor Theodore Roosevelt accomplished much, with fewer staff, through a high-profile “bully pulpit” that influenced and reshaped public policy.
Today, on this Presidents Day, we too are debating the proper limits of executive authority. President Barack Obama has said he will invoke executive influence to bypass what he regards as an intransigent Congress.
The tactic may not be unprecedented, but it is nevertheless troubling. Overuse of executive authority, regardless of its justification, upsets the constitutional balance of power among our branches of government. Policy and regulatory changes may not reflect the popular will. And these changes may not be easily undone.
The administration has already taken unilateral action changing the Affordable Care Act and on food safety, environmental regulation and educational funding.
Each individual mandate may be rationalized. In the aggregate, it’s a new order of magnitude in bureaucratic tinkering. That upsets the “Madisonian model,” a philosophy of presidential conduct attributed to James Madison, a framer of the Constitution and the nation’s fourth president.
Madison sought a strict separation of powers. That avoids excessive influence over the nation’s affairs by minority or majority factions. Today, however, the pendulum of power has swung away from our congressional representatives. The president must be able to play the hand he’s dealt, but that doesn’t give him the right to change the structure of our constitutional government.
Every four years, Americans vote for electors to select our president. That vote has never been and never should be a referendum on the nature of the office itself. The nation has a fundamental interest in maintaining the place of the executive branch within the constitutional architecture.
When we reflect in future years on how our current president wields power, we hope that it will not be a legacy of contempt for the concept of balanced government.