Republicans: Reject the Siren Call of the Imperial Presidency
The election of Manhattan business tycoon and reality television star Donald Trump sent shockwaves through the United States. Republican partisans, however surprised, slept soundly on November 8, knowing that beginning in 2017, they would control both houses of Congress and the White House. Conversely, Democratic partisans are now fearing the rollback of President Barack Obama’s crowning achievements, such as the unaffordable entitlement expansions included in the Affordable Care Act and other liberal policy gains made over the past eight years.
Americans’ anxiety about the election results — especially Trump’s victory over the odds-on favorite Hillary Clinton — indirectly reflects the power accrued by the executive branch, and thus the president, over the past several decades. Few, it seems, are immune to the allure of the powerful office of the presidency — including even so-called “conservative” Republicans.
In C.S. Lewis’ novel The Silver Chair, the eponymous chair is enchanted so as to drive its occupant mad unless he or she sits in it. In a similar way, the lure of executive power — represented by the office chair in the Oval Office — has seduced politicians into using any available methods to expand that power to achieve desired policy goals.
For example, in the late 1980s, President Ronald Reagan told interviewer David Frost that he “would like to start a movement” to repeal the constitutional requirement allowing presidents to serve for only two terms — a move inspired by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s violation of then-uncodified norms about term limits.
In 1986, Republican lawmakers began efforts to repeal presidential term limits in order to keep the White House under the red team’s control. At the time, U.S. Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-MI) proposed repealing presidential term limits and organized rallies and fundraising events to expand the executive branch’s power.
Similarly, numerous lawmakers over the years, including former U.S. Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and José Serrano (D-IL), U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have proposed repealing the 22nd Amendment, which establishes presidential term limits, when their respective parties controlled of the White House.
In 1995, conservative icon and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) called on his fellow Congressman to submit to the imperial presidency by supporting a proposal to repeal the War Powers Act, a check against the president’s ability to use military forces without accountability to lawmakers. Exhorting his fellow Republicans to cede their collective power to the executive branch, Gingrich said during a debate on the House floor: “I want to strengthen the current Democratic president because he’s the president of the United States and the president of the United States, on a bipartisan basis, deserves to be strengthened…He does not deserve to be undermined.”
Thankfully, Gingrich’s proposal was rejected by his own partisans. But the lure of the imperial presidency lives on.
This trend was cap-stoned in 2014, when President Obama, frustrated with lawmakers’ unwillingness to bend to his wishes, told reporters that he planned to enact his policies through executive orders, written instructions detailing how he wished the laws to be administered. As the president put it: “I’ve got a pen and a phone.”
Now that pen and phone are in Trump’s hands. Liberals, who cheered Obama’s decisiveness and willingness to use the power of the administrative state — about 2.8 million federal government employees working for over 430 agencies and departments — to bypass the legislature are unlikely to do so if Donald Trump follows suit.
Politics makes strange bedfellows; and 2016 will not debunk that adage. Those who are truly concerned with government’s growth can now find common cause with those who are alarmed at the prospect of Donald Trump’s wielding the power of the imperial presidency.
Conservative lawmakers in Congress should take advantage of this opportunity and make good on their promises to reduce Washington’s grip over the rest of the country, delegating as much power as possible to cities and states. Republicans must resist the urge to empower the presidency — as well as the federal government in general — in the name of red-versus-blue tribal politics.