Trevor Brookins

Trevor Brookins

*The expansion of presidential power is one of the issues that seems to change a person’s argument according to the party in the Oval Office. Democrats gripe when a Republican President exercises excess authority and vice versa.

But most people are really upset not by the fact that Presidents have more power than they did in former administrations. It’s really about how the opposing party utilizes that increased power. This is why Democrats complain about George W Bush initiating the Patriot Act but not about Obama’s extension of it.

Nevertheless I will review here two instances of the aspects of the expansion of Presidential authority.  One is a reasonable evolution of the office of the Presidency while the other has been a fundamental redefinition of the office and how it operates.

The late 19th century saw the country fully embrace industrialization and the expansion of business that followed. During this time period businesses engaged in questionable tactics in order to gain advantages over competitors. The ultimate result was the elimination of many small to medium sized businesses and the exploitation of consumers. Because this wave of industrialization involved national businesses and interstate commerce, this situation necessarily had to be addressed by the federal government.

To be sure the Progressive Era was about more than federal regulation but that was a major part because only the federal government has the authority to regulate national affairs. Therefore laws like the Interstate Commerce Act had to have the executive branch behind it. This is where presidential power reasonably increased. In fact there was no way to avoid furthering empowering the president if regulation of business was to take place.

On the other hand the 20th and 21st centuries have seen the trend of increasing leeway given to the President in military and national security matters. This is a problem. The Constitution unmistakably casts the president as someone who will execute the military and national security decisions of Congress.

Military conflicts against other nations used to require a declaration of war. Even when American troops were attacked (supposedly in United States territory) as they were to start the Mexican-American War, even when American profits were at risk as they were leading up to the Spanish-American War, even when the most powerful countries in Western civilization were fighting with world dominance at stake as it was during World War I, the President took his concerns to Congress and asked/demanded a declaration of war.

Yet since the beginning of the Cold War presidential dependency on Congress to authorize military action has gone out the window. Presidents have committed American troops to Vietnam, Grenada, Egypt, Chile and Iraq (twice) without waiting for approval from Congress all under the guise of national security. Assuming the threat from the Soviet Union was real during the Cold War still shouldn’t mean the President gets to single-handedly decide to risk American soldiers in theaters of war. But that threat essentially transformed our system of checks and balances into an absolute monarchy as far as military decisions are concerned.

On the one hand I can appreciate that no one but the current President has an idea of how dangerous a situation the country is in. I would imagine many presidents got their first national security briefing and immediately rethink their views on unilateral action. But the counter to this perspective is that terror is not new; threats to this country are not new; and freedom has never been free and somehow we avoided turning into a dictatorship.

The most problematic aspect of this development regarding the presidency is that the American public and Congress appear largely unable to distinguish supporting the troops from supporting bad decisions. When the President sends American soldiers somewhere, Congress has the option of approving paying for the mission. They could vote against it but consistently approve these military actions because the American public generally hang yellow ribbons and say “support the troops” without considering why those troops are being put in harm’s way.

The growth of the executive branch and Presidential authority was always going to happen as new national laws were created. That was unavoidable. But Congress ceding its military and foreign policy duties is and has always been far from inevitable and clearly not desirable.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.