*Since the ratification of the Constitution there has always been a tense balancing act between the three branches of the federal government; each branch trying to gain authority at the expense of the other two.
The lawsuit being brought by Speaker of the House John Boehner against President Obama is simply the latest round of one-ups-man-ship. In other words don’t expect anyone within government to take this seriously – and nor should they.
The President is charged with enforcing the laws of the land, specifically the federal laws. However there are a lot of laws and priorities must be set. So when presidents issue orders to their staff (and the entire executive branch is basically under their direction), from one perspective it is a president emphasizing what should have their attention. From a different perspective it is a president dictating that federal agents ignore what’s important. Which perspective you take usually depends on whether you align with or against the president doing the emphasizing.
That a president would take it upon himself to issue executive orders is not a new phenomenon. And that folks of a differing opinion would be upset is also old news. What is new, at least since the mid 20th century, is the amount of power vested in office of the presidency. The threat of the Cold War made it understandable (even desirable) that the president would act on his own in the best interest of the country. After all he had access to information that Congress and the Supreme Court did not. In this way the Cold War permanently altered the balance of checks and balances set up in the Constitution.
Speaker Boehner’s lawsuit is supposed to be about the dislike of the President taking liberty to nullify the influence of Congress by running the country as he sees fit instead of according to the laws Congress passed. But what Boehner’s lawsuit truly reveals is the change in the country since the presidency has been imbued with extra power. Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has faced similar criticisms and in a way each of them have deserved it. That should tell us something about the nature of the office, not necessarily the nature of the men who inhabit the office.
When the office of the presidency was conceived it was assumed that George Washington would hold the job first. Many of the powers of the presidency that seemed scary were adopted because everyone knew that Washington would not take advantage of them. And yet even Washington believed it was the duty of the president to look at laws that Congress passed and determine if they should be enforced. This was his interpretation of how the executive branch checked the legislative branch and balanced power between them. So when Obama decides if and how to enforce certain laws he isn’t doing anything new or special. Neither is Boehner when he voices disapproval. The lawsuit is a new and interesting wrinkle.
Even if it will go nowhere.
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.