If you turn on a news program, the odds favor that at least one two of the buzziest topics in our politics — the 2020 Democratic presidential primary and the daily actions of President Donald Trump — will be what you see. Presidents have been commanding public attention since the nation’s founding, and with good reason. The executive branch was designed to be run by one person as opposed to the numerous representatives in the legislative branch or justices of the judicial branch.
In Federalist 70, Alexander Hamilton wrote that “energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government” because he or she is “best calculated to conciliate the confidence of the people and to secure their privileges and interests.”
This is why the president is charged with ensuring the laws are faithfully executed and acting swiftly in times of national crisis. The Founders never saw the executive as a secondary branch, but the issue for our day is that they did not see Congress as a secondary branch either.
Despite the need for an energetic executive, the expectation was that all parts of our government would exercise similar zeal in addressing issues facing the nation. What we see today is far removed from what the Founders intended, and it is one of the root causes of why major public policy challenges of our time remain unaddressed.
Take the recent negotiations over the debt ceiling. Since the first warnings about the U.S. hitting its debt limit in early March, little headway has been made about how Congress intends to raise the debt ceiling before the likely September deadline. Congress has known about the issue for at least four months, yet no solution has been negotiated, let alone voted on.
Instead, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has taken the lead in helping a small group of congressional leaders reach a deal while reports detail that Senate Republicans have been “in the dark about their party’s backup plan for raising the debt ceiling.” The congressional rank-and-file are left in the dark while their leaders are being led by a member of the president’s Cabinet to finalize a deal they will only see once it has been agreed to.
No wonder so many Americans see today’s Congress as a sidekick to the president.
Members of Congress are also beginning to take these mistaken views to heart.
I have argued here before that one of the main reasons so many Democratic members of Congress are running for president is because they see the executive branch as a place for real action relative to their own branch. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is a good recent case study. On top of vowing “executive action” to reinstate protections for DACA recipients, Sen. Harris has similarly pledged that she would issue a 100-day ultimatum to Congress to pass her preferred gun control legislation. Should Congress decide not to pass that legislation, Sen. Harris would again take “executive action” to enact her reforms. It’s safe to say Hamilton would never be satisfied hearing a sitting United States Senator talk about needing to act unilaterally as president before achieving her desired reforms.
It isn’t just Democratic presidential candidates calling for a more-or-less unilateral executive to answer for congressional inaction. Remember President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border earlier this year? Openly flouting Congress’s refusal to allocate funds for the president’s border wall, President Trump stated at the time that “[he] didn’t need to do this, but [he’d] rather do it much faster.” As National Review senior writer David French observes, “presidential overreach is a thoroughly bipartisan problem, and now we’re seeing the logical next step — abuse of power as a campaign promise.”
Congress’s unwillingness to challenge expansions of executive power also sets up another front on which younger Americans will need to clean up the mess of today’s leaders.
No matter how many new areas Congress cedes to the immediate actions of the executive branch, the impermanent nature of those actions means they are ultimately made in vain. Countless articles are written about the reversal of previous administrations’ executive actions every time a new president of an opposing party enters the White House. Despite any positive benefits that might come from executive actions on immigration, government spending, health care, gun rights, and assorted other issues Congress has the power to address now, the next president will always have the privilege of reversing those actions for any reason or no reason.
The combination of congressional weakness and our age of president-centric politics is breeding a climate of ping-ponging executive orders by presidents while the major issues of our time continue to grow without stable policy solutions to adequately address them. Each time a president overreaches is a time we stray further from the Founders’ original vision for the executive branch.
Ultimately, that means future generations are being left with an increasingly broken system that is unable to adequately act upon the challenges it faces. We can start fixing the system by being less president-centric in how we approach politics and demanding a Congress that sees itself as an independent actor instead of a sidekick.