With debates over the budget deficit, gun control and immigration policy dominating political discussion in Washington, D.C. and across the nation, another important political issue, the Imperial Presidency, has not been receiving the attention it deserves.
The Imperial Presidency refers to the idea that the Presidency of the United States has grown too powerful and has exceeded its constitutional limits.
President Obama, like his predecessors, has taken actions that are clearly beyond the powers of the President as defined in the Constitution.
As a senator, Barack Obama attacked the Imperial Presidency of George W. Bush and promised to return the Presidency to its Constitutional limits if elected. But since his election Obama has accelerated and strengthened the Imperial Presidency.
The most famous Imperial President is Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign after the Watergate scandal broke out.
Nixon and his administration engaged in many unconstitutional actions, such as lying to Congress about U.S. involvement in Cambodia and illegally wiretapping people in the government, the media and anti-Vietnam protestors. These actions were considered impeachable when Nixon committed them.
But, now Obama continues to take similar actions without any serious threat of impeachment.
Take the Libya and Cambodia comparison.
Nixon bombed the nation of Cambodia and did not consult Congress on the issue and lied about U.S. involvement there. The Congress charged this was an impeachable offense because Nixon had ignored Congress’ authority to declare war.
Obama took similar action in Libya. He intervened in Libya without consulting Congress.
In both of these cases, Nixon and Obama essentially declared that they had an inherent right to decide when the U.S. should intervene in other nations and engage in war. This is clearly a dangerous idea – giving power to one man to decide when the U.S. should get involved in war is something the Founders would not have supported.
The Founders lived in an era when Kings and their advisors decided when to send nations into war without consulting the citizens of their nation. The Founders wanted to safeguard against this and wanted to make sure that the nation could collectively decide when to engage in war through representative democracy.
The Constitution gives the Congress the authority to declare war, not the President. But in Libya and Cambodia the President decided to conduct war policy without the consultation of Congress.
Many voices in the Congress debating war policy is a more democratic system than one man deciding when to go to war. This is why the Founders created the Legislative Branch and gave the Congress the power to declare war.
Additionally, both Nixon and Obama illegally wiretapped individuals and organizations. Nixon authorized wiretapping of his enemies without consulting Congress or the Courts.
Obama and George W. Bush also used wiretapping after the passage of the Patriot Act, which increases the executive branches ability to gather information about individuals or organizations through the use of wiretapping and hacking without warrants or judicial oversight.
Bush and Obama have kept the secret files on who was wiretapped. The Courts have ruled that a person can only file a case against the executive branch on the violation of privacy if they can prove that they were illegally wiretapped. But this is impossible as the executive branch has kept this information secret, meaning the American people can never defend their civil liberties against the encroaching powers of the Imperial Presidency.
Obama also expanded the powers of the Imperial Presidency with his drone policy. With his drone policy, Obama is basically claiming that he has the power to kill anyone, possibly including U.S. citizens, without any charge or conviction. Obama has conducted his drone policy without consulting Congress and he continues to assert that he has the sole authority to conduct drone warfare.
But, Obama is only acting on precedents set by previous Presidents. All of the Presidents since WWII have expanded Presidential war making powers.
The most recent examples can be seen by George W. Bush who after 9/11 received unprecedented war powers. I already mentioned the Patriot Act which was passed without any serious discussion and Bush and his administration proceeded to conduct interrogations of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay without consulting Congress. Bush and his administration also ignored the Freedom of Information Act by signing Executive Order 13223 which gave the sitting President the ability to cancel the release of documents written during previous administrations. This has greatly expanded secrecy and kept much sought after information secret.
Bush, similarly to Lyndon Johnson, led the nation into war in Iraq by declaring that his administration had proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Lyndon Johnson declared that the North Vietnamese had attacked a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Tonkin even though the facts of the incident have been questioned. But, in both of these cases, the Congress and the American people trusted the executive branch, which led us into two unpopular conflicts.
Presidents as far back as James K. Polk have manipulated Congress into getting the U.S. involved in conflict, such as when Polk purposely sent troops to the Mexican-American border to instigate conflict with the Mexicans.
Another major example of the Imperial Presidency is the Iran Contra affair which occurred under Reagan’s Presidency.
In the Iran Contra affair, the administration was caught selling arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages and then using the profits from these sales to fund freedom fighters in the country of Nicaragua. The Congress previously had forbidden the Reagan administration from aiding the Contras with the passage of the Boland Amendment. But, the Reagan administration ignored the amendment and argued that the Congress could not interfere with the President’s right to conduct foreign policy and thus continued to secretly support the Contras.
Although there is no direct evidence that proves that President Reagan agreed to authorize continued funding for the Contras, members of his administration, possibly acting on his behalf, did continue to ignore Congress and fund the Contras.
The Iran Contra affair is further evidence of the executive branch continuing to engage in actions that the Congress forbade.
It is important to note that the Founders did support the idea of executive prerogative, which means that the President will gain extra constitutional and extraordinary powers during a national emergency.
But, the question is: who defines the emergency?
It has increasingly become the President who defines the emergency. However, the Founders would argue that as long as the Congress and the people recognize the emergency, the President will escape impeachment. Therefore, it is up to the American people to hold the President accountable for his actions.
In the Cold War and now in the War on Terror, the emergencies we encounter are often hard to define.
Thus, we need to ensure that Nixon’s famous quote, “If the President does it, it isn’t illegal,” does not begin to become a permanent fixture in modern Presidential policy.