The Constitution, the President and Us

In Room to Grow, Ramesh Ponnuru writes,

Confronted by presidential lawlessness, some conservatives are tempted to throw up their hands. They conclude there does not seem to be much conservatives can do about it besides such extreme, and for that reason impractical, measures as impeachment. But…we can make the case that the president must be bound by the laws and that executive dereliction of duty is a threat to national well-being…we could try to reestablish a political norm by raising the cost of violations of it and increasing the odds that future presidents will feel bound by it.

Good luck with that. I just finished reading The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America, by F.H. Buckley. The main take-away is that once you have a chief executive chosen by popular election, you are in trouble. The “extreme” measure of the legislature removing the head of state happens much more readily in parliamentary systems, Buckley argues. He says we are just about the only country without a parliamentary system that isn’t pretty far along on the autocracy spectrum.

Buckley says that our founders did not want a popularly elected President. They wanted a President chosen by the House of Representatives. But they were afraid to take that idea to the people, so they instead proposed that the selection would go the House in the case of an electoral college deadlock–which they thought would be the norm once George Washington left office. Oops!

Buckley says that the problem with popular election of Prime Ministers, and especially of Presidents, is that they become much more powerful than legislatures. They have national legitimacy, they can present a unified front, and they can dominate the news media. Separation of powers is a pipedream.

Where we’re headed, ultimately, is for the Presidency to become more and more powerful, until we have the equivalent of Hugo Chavez or Vladimir Putin. That’s Buckley’s version of “Have a nice day.”

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6 Responses to The Constitution, the President and Us

  1. Christopher Chang says:

    Plausible, but we certainly seem to be taking our sweet time on the way to that destination. There are a lot of things to complain about re: W and Obama, but both seem distinctly less powerful than, say, FDR or LBJ, and I’m not sure the sign of the difference changes even after one corrects for W and Obama’s puppetmasters.

    • Andrew' says:

      That may not be good news. That may just mean the possibility of the power of FDR and LBJ already exists. That is the means. Add the motive and the opportunity plus the extra 50 or 100 years of progress on the autocracy road and we could have a black swan type transition.

      E.g., the chief justice of the supreme court saved Obamacare on the interesting legal theory that the power to tax is not hindered by anything else in the Constitution.

  2. djf says:

    “The “extreme” measure of the legislature removing the head of state happens much more readily in parliamentary systems, Buckley argues.”

    I think you mean “head of government.” Parliamentary systems, even in non-monarchical countries like Israel, generally separate head of state and head of government into two offices.

  3. Yancey Ward says:

    The only thing that has saved the US from this is the fact that the president is term limited and his term is 4 years plus another 4 years, and that any change to this must be performed by the onerous amendment passage process of the US constitution. Given the malleability of the meaning of the constitution, however, it is only a matter of time before these restrictions are ignored. I give it another 100 years max.

    • Andrew' says:

      Not only that, they seem to get ignored when wars are convened. That is a conflict of interest.

      What if we had an amendment that said any time a war was declared the president had to skeedaddle?

  4. OneEyedMan says:

    Is there statistical evidence that we get fewer abuses of executive authority in parliamentary systems? Certainly that the chancellor answered to the Weimar Republic’s Reichstag was not an effective check on totalitarianism on Germany. Nor did such government act as an effective check in WWII era Italy.

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