WASHINGTON: In recent years the role of the executive has steadily expanded. Regardless of party.
In “The Cult of the Presidency” (The Cato Institute), written when George W. Bush was president, Gene Healy writes of the powers the executive had assumed:
“…the power to launch wars at will, to tap phones and read e-mail without a warrant, and to seize American citizens on American soil and hold them for the duration of the war on terror—-in other words, perhaps forever—-without ever having to answer to a judge.”
Healy points out that,
“Neither Left nor Right sees the President as the Framers saw him: a constitutionally constrained chief executive, with an important, but limited, job: to defend the country when attacked, check Congress when it violates the Constitution, enforce the law—-and little else. Today, for conservatives as well as liberals, it is the president’s job to protect us from harm, to ‘grow the economy,’ to spread democracy and American ideals abroad, and even to heal spiritual malaise.”
The Founding Fathers
The entire political philosophy of the Founding Fathers was their response to fear of government power and the need to strictly limit and control that power. It was their fear of total government control and an all-powerful executive that caused them to rebel against the arbitrary rule of King George III.
In the Constitution, they tried their best to construct a form of government, through a series of checks and balances and a clear division of powers, which would protect individual freedom.
We often forget that the Framers of the Constitution viewed the elected representatives of the people in Congress as the first branch of government. The job of the executive was just that—-to execute the laws Congress had enacted.
Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen notes that
“The legislature is the first branch of government. Its prerogatives are those defended in the Declaration of Independence. The legislature is treated in the first article of the Constitution; the executive, not until the second when The Federalist Papers scrutinize the powers and responsibilities assigned to each branch of government, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay start, in Paper 52, with the legislative branch. The job of the executive—-namely, the president—-is simply that, to execute, and in particular to execute the will of the people.”
Why is the legislature the first branch of government?
In Dr. Allen’s view,
“Because it and only it has the job of expressing the will of the people. In the direct democracy of ancient Athens, the full body of citizens could gather and choose their common direction; then they delegated its execution to their generals and administrators. Our country’s founding generation designed the instrument of ‘representation’ to permit the voters of a mass democracy who could not all gather in one place to express their common will…With the mechanism of representation, they hoped to create a body in which the widely varying views of the population could be filtered and synthesized. Only Congress has this job of generating the will of the people out of a process of deliberation. Only the House of Representatives represents the full people.”
In Federalist 47, James Madison wrote:
“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. Were the federal Constitution, therefore, really chargeable with the accumulation of power, or with a mixture of powers, having a dangerous tendency to such an accumulation, no further arguments would be necessary to inspire a universal reprobation of the system.”
The political thinker who had the most critical impact upon the thinking of the Founding Fathers was John Locke. Locke repeatedly emphasized his suspicion of government power. He believed that if the authorities violate their trust, the regime should be dissolved.
The political tradition out of which the U.S. Constitution grew repeatedly stressed the importance of limiting the sphere of government.
A founding fear of power
The written and spoken words of the men who led the Revolution give us numerous examples of their fear and suspicion of power and those who held it.
Samuel Adams assertation that
“There is a degree of watchfulness over all men possessed of power or influence upon which the liberties of mankind much depend. It is necessary to guard against the infirmities of the best as well as the wickedness of the worst of men.” Therefore, “Jealousy is the best security of public liberty.”
Are we still fearful of government power and an all-powerful executive as the Founding Fathers were?
Today, it seems, we have adopted a variety of situation ethics——Democrats fear government power when it is in the hands of Republicans, and Republicans fear such power when wielded by Democrats. But when they hold power, both parties enjoy wielding it and expanding it.
Government grows and grows. The Constitution, in effect, be damned.
This is particularly troubling in the case of those who call themselves conservative because a fundamental element of their philosophy is—-or used to be—-limited government. The 19th century British Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli said that the first thing a conservative must ask himself is what it is he seeks to conserve. Some American conservatives seem to have forgotten.