Executive Branch Power
July 5, 2007 10:25 AM   Subscribe

Why is the presidential administration working so persistently to bequeath extra powers to their likely Democrat successors?

Though this question delves into sensitive political waters, the question itself is fairly neutral - it's about strategy rather than idealogy, and I hope people will respond as such (rather than launch diatribes):

The current administration has been doing everything it can to expand the power and autonomy of the executive branch. But why would they want this, when the executive branch is just as likely to be inhabited by Democrats? I can't imagine Bush/Cheney and Co. would be pleased to see a liberal president acting unchecked....so why this push, with its long-lasting implications?

I do understand that at the beginning of this administration, Republicans were confident they'd hold the executive branch for decades...so the play for executive power made sense at that time. However, the future is now considerably less assured. So why is this power play not just continuing but accelerating (e.g. Cheney's latest)?

I'd like to discourage replies ala "they're simply insane" and other such useless ranting.
posted by jimmyjimjim to Law & Government (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
1. even with just a four year lease on the white house, there is much that a more powerful administration can do to serve its fundamentalist and corporate constituents.

2. perhaps they envision something other than the traditional orderly transition of power in 2008-2009.

3. nobody ever accused these people of genius.
posted by bruce at 10:32 AM on July 5, 2007

It's dangerous to attribute these guys that sort of foresight -- they seem to act like they'll never be out of power. That said, it's also a safe bet that it's a good chance any leftie would be too wet/principled to pull the shit they pull.

Haven't Republicans typically been in power the majority of the time anyway? Whatever damage the Dems do can be undone once they get back in.
posted by bonaldi at 10:34 AM on July 5, 2007

Because the nature of democracy (generally) means that no one party will have a permanent lock on governing.

The Republicans have no fear that the Democrats are about to gain a 50 year strangle-hold on the presidency. In a nation that is divided as the US, the existence of a "permanent" governing party is unlikely in the extreme. Indeed, many people vote against incumbents simply on principle. When the Republicans turn comes around again, which it inevitably will, they'll have the power to do more of what they want. It's the same reason they appointed the (relatively) young John Roberts and Sam Alito to the bench -- long term vision.

We can therefore guess that they (the current Republican adminstration) seek a strong executive ("imperial presidency") as a principle of how they feel America should be governed over a long-time scale, which is unrelated to the immediate electoral cycle.
posted by modernnomad at 10:38 AM on July 5, 2007

Well, you may have something of a principal-agent problem here. I think it's far from clear that administration officials--and I mean ANY administration officials, not only the ones currently occupying the White House--have the same interests as the political party from which they hail. Party members in lesser seats (Senators, Congressman, Governors) have their future political aspirations intertwined with the fate of their party, but the same isn't true of administration officials, who can't very well run for President a third time, and are unlikely to run for a lesser seat.

Most people who leave the White House go on to become lobbyists, and I imagine that any sorts of goodies that get handed out via expanded executive privilege will smooth that transition. I think a better question is, why should they care about the fate of the party once they leave office? (On either side of the aisle.) They only care if they believe very, very deeply in the causes of the party and are willing to subsume their own interests for the interests of the party, and there aren't a whole lot of people like that out there.
posted by iminurmefi at 10:41 AM on July 5, 2007

Because the governing classes are two sides of the same coin.
posted by Good Brain at 10:43 AM on July 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Corporate oligarchy knows no party.
posted by and hosted from Uranus at 10:44 AM on July 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry if this was chatfilter...I guess you're right. I was hoping my disclaimers would help, but that was naive.

Some interesting replies, though. Thanks to those posters.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 10:50 AM on July 5, 2007

The balance of power in the U.S. has been clearly shifting from the legislative and towards the executive over the course of the entire past century. (There was a book that recently came out about this--can't remember the name, sorry.)

One reason executive privilege and other similar battles are not fought with more vigor is that the party that is out of power always assumes they will be back in power within an election or two.

And even though they despise the other party's use of those powers, they don't want to eliminate the powers. Rather, they want to reserve that power for themselves when that future election comes.

The thinking seems to be, that even though the current party is using those powers in a 'wrong' way, when WE get in power we will use the powers for 'good'.

Therefore the solution is not to eliminate this power, which most everyone agrees can be used well or badly, but to get our own party into power so that we can use the power well.

No one seems to be capable of standing outside the system and seeing that a power that can be used well or badly needs to have checks and balances to it. It needs to be restricted and limited.

In short, to solve this problem we need (for example) congressmembers to stand up for congress as an independent and powerful institution, to stand up for the right of congress to investigate issues in an unlimited way, and to stand up for the good of the whole system and the democratic process, rather than only for the interests of their party.

And we need people to realize, and stand up and fight for, the idea that secrecy is at its core inimical to the democratic process. Yes, there are certain things that need to be kept secret in the short term, like tactical military plans. But secrecy should be strictly limited to where it is actually necessary, it should be limited in duration, it should be subject to checks and balances and congressional and judicial oversight.

Government ordinay business and decisions (say, about energy policy) should not be made in secrecy. Period.

While we're at it, the whole idea that the courts will defer to the executive on the basis of "national security" should be eliminated. Once such a sweeping exception is made, it becomes inevitable that it will be abused. Even national security issues can (and should) be addressed via the democratic process, not by making an end-run around it.

(We might be waiting a while for all that . . . they are all the type of things that each party thinks the other abuses, but that they will be capable of using wisely once they are safely in power.)
posted by flug at 11:00 AM on July 5, 2007

There might be a good historical component. Over the past 50 years the R's have dominated the presidency, and the D's the congress.

Also, look at it from a game perspective. Right now they have the executive and not the legislative. If they did anything else they'd just be turning power over. If they have both branches (as they did recently) it's a lateral transfer within the party and doesn't matter much. The future possible D/D president could do what they're doing now just as easily even if GW gives up the power grab.

Also consider that the powers in question are intrinsically more useful for R priorities than D priorities. Naming enemies of the state isn't going to get you universal health care.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:20 AM on July 5, 2007

Remember that Rove promised a "permanent Republican majority". They expected the Iraq War to be won, and provide a beachhead for further successful intervention in the Middle East. Had that happened, they'd not be nearly so unpopular, and would have been able to bequeath power to a hand-picked successor Republican administration.

Note also that even if the Republicans lose the White House, they've spent eight years packing the Judiciary and the bureaucracy with hard-core partisan Republicans; Monica Goodling was far from the only Bushite to illegally apply a partisan political litmus test for hiring for ostensibly apolitical positions. Indeed, Rove's strategy of securing a permant Republican majority relied on this politicization of previously and statutorily apolitical jobs, to harness tax-payer dollars in the service of the Republican Party. And to a large degree, that strategy succeeded: witness the DOJ firings, the GSA chief Luriya Doan, HUD threats, immigration judges who are partisans without any immigration law experience, etc., etc., etc., not to mention that the much of the "Faith-based" money being thrown around is essentially a scheme to employ socially conservative partisans between elections.

So basically, they made a gamble: if they could accumulate enough power without oversight, they could parley that into a perpetual majority with their partisans funded, one way or another, by the tax-payers.

But this strategy relies on hiring and rewarding fiercely partisan loyalists above all else, without regard to the rewardee's other abilities. Mismanagement in Iraq principly (the Bremer fiasco, Rumsfeld overriding Shalikashvili's advice, Abu Graib, etc.), and other mismanagement (Katrina, 9/11 and its aftermath, veterans' care, etc.) is inherent in hiring loyalists, cronies, and ideolougues instead of competent experts.

But it was a (is) a near run thing: if they could get enough incompetent-but-loyal partisans on the payroll before the house of cards came tumbling down, it would be self-perpetuating, with the increased presidential power (and don't forget, secrecy) being the means to keep the machine going. Probably, without the Iraq quagmire, the mismanagement wouldn't have been so blatantly revealed, and as a "war hero", Bush could have kept a Republican majority in Congress and handed off power to another Republican administration in 2009.

Again, basically, they gambled that they'd have a generation or more before any of this expanded Presidential power got into Democratic hands.
posted by orthogonality at 11:21 AM on July 5, 2007

I basically agree with bonaldi, but it may also be worth noting that there's a good chance that any Dem administration that comes in in 2009 will be ousted after one term, because the country has been so screwed over they're going to look bad no matter how they deal with the many disasters they'll be faced with. Then the GOP will come back in and reclaim the power they know is rightfully theirs. Meanwhile, all those judicial appointees will be doing the Lord's work.
posted by languagehat at 11:35 AM on July 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Put me down as another who believes the evidence says the Republicans really expected to win, marginalizing the Democrats long term. And dammit all if I wasn't scared they were right.

Remember the fall of 2006, before the election? Remember the gnawing fear that the elections really were unwinably rigged, or that that a majority of the country really was snookered by Republican tactics? That it really might be futile?

Yeah. The outcome of the fall elections was far from certain. The outcome of the 2008 elections isn't certain either.
posted by namespan at 11:37 AM on July 5, 2007

I agree with flug that presidential powers have been expanding over the past century, but I disagree with the reason--I think most people inside the Beltway think in much shorter terms than that. It's easy to moan about the Democrats or the Republicans like they're some monolith, but a party is nothing but a group of people held together by common funding. They don't all think with the same mind, nor have the same goals. Loyalty to the party happens because the party can get YOU elected, not because you want to get the party itself elected.

I would place the blame for an expanding presidency on media becoming faster, more visual, and more fragmented over the past century, all developments which really enhance the political power of the President (one very recognizable person speaking with one voice) over that of Congress (maybe a handful of recognizable faces, all saying different things, and few people remember what any given Congresscritter said on any given issue before). If you were putting together a nightly newscast, which clip would you use? The President is the hands-down winner for a 10-second soundbite on the issue de jour. This is exacerbated by the tendency for people to get ever more of their news from national (and perhaps today even global) rather than local sources, as they might have a century ago--and national news sources are even more likely to follow the President rather than an individual member of Congress who represents only a fraction of their readership/viewership.

So you have a situation where the President commands more eyeballs than any member of Congress--and eyeballs get your issues noticed and your ass elected. With the constant short-term imperative to get re-elected, people in Congress are much more dependent upon the President shining his rhetorical light on them than vice-versa. Which explains WHY Congress keeps granting more and more power to the President (or at least not fighting the expansion of power with more vigor)--not because because they assume their party will be back in power soon, or even because they think they will be President one day, but because they need the President much more than the President needs them. And the President wants more power because, hey, who wouldn't?
posted by iminurmefi at 11:41 AM on July 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms.
posted by RussHy at 11:54 AM on July 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

This question makes more sense if you remove the specific names and parties, and just think about it in general.

Is there an aspect to every politician that is power hungry and slight (or not so slightly) egotistical? Absolutely. But there also has to be a drive around wanting to serve and be a public servant and do something to help the country and its people. This is true no matter if you are talking about Bush, Clinton, Regan, Kennedy, or anyone else. If you're willing to accept that as true (and I believe it is) then the President is trying to get increased power to help the people. And they recognize that the next President will do the same. Politicians serve in the short term, but the office they serve from, and the people they help, and the nation the lead exist for the long term. We'll have bumps and valleys (higher and lower, depending on your political leanings) but the long term is what matters. They believe what they are doing is right for the long term success and growth and strength of the United States of America, and it will continue no matter who holds the office.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 11:54 AM on July 5, 2007

It's not so partisan as that.

The powers that Bush has asked for / asserted have been, by and large, war-fighting powers. Bush's people want Democrat Presidents to have those powers, too, because Bush's people think of war as a foreign policy tool that tends to achieve the national interest when applied, regardless of by whom.

It's critical to remember that American wars are now, as they always have been and always will be, bi-partisan. There would have been no Iraq occupation without Democratic support in 2002, and as soon as there is no more Democratic support there will be no more Iraq occupation. Bush assumes -- rightly so -- that Republicans will support Hillary Clinton's wars when it time for Hillary Clinton to go to war.

Beyond foreign policy, there's also a strong bi-partisan tendency for Presidents to support Presidential power. As much as Republicans resented some of Clinton's executive orders, they certainly didn't try to say that they were illegitimate exercises of power, they just reversed (or tried to reverse) them.
posted by MattD at 11:55 AM on July 5, 2007

Your question is based on the premise that Bush is actually going to allow elections to go through. There is a fear among many of his critics, not just the crazy, conspiricy guys, that he may find a way to suspend elections.

Currently we are in a "War against Terror". How do we sign a peace treaty with Terror? As long as Bush thinks we are in a state of war, he can keep declaring special powers for himself. Till congress uses their only real check, impeachment, the congress is conceding their power by default.
posted by slavlin at 11:56 AM on July 5, 2007

Sorry, plenty of Republicans did denounce Clinton's executive orders as unlawful -- but Bush administration people once in office just tried to undo them without attacking their validity when promulgated.
posted by MattD at 11:57 AM on July 5, 2007

I put it down to just short-sightedness and the assumption of permanent power. This has happened before:
- FDR elected 4 times. Republicans work to get 22nd Amendment. 1st popular president affected- Eisenhower. 2nd popular president affected- Reagan.
-Reagan presses for line-item veto. Only president allowed to use it- Clinton
posted by MtDewd at 12:06 PM on July 5, 2007

There is a fear among many of his critics, not just the crazy, conspiricy guys, that he may find a way to suspend elections.

Cite? I've only seen this from crazy, conspiracy guys thus far.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 12:18 PM on July 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I agree that the answer is the simple one: they're gaming the system for themselves in the here and now without regard to what future parties have with it.

Think of it like renting a house. If you want, feel you could build, and have the tools to make changes around the house, you would. Gazebo? Four-headed shower? Billiards table? Check. Who cares what the next residents hold as long as you made the most of your time there.
posted by Mach3avelli at 12:24 PM on July 5, 2007

They don't need to suspend elections if they can fix them, and they have proven that they can do just that. They won't lose the White House as long as they control whose vote counts and who counts the votes.
posted by mds35 at 12:26 PM on July 5, 2007

I can't imagine Bush/Cheney and Co. would be pleased to see a liberal president acting unchecked....so why this push, with its long-lasting implications?

You fail to appreciate the essential logic of conservatism. For non-liberals unchecked power, whether Republican or Democrat, is good in itself. The enemy isn't the Democrats it's the very philosophy of liberalism, the belief that men are ends in themselves. Someone like Cheney understands very clearly that power corrupts and even if the next VP is a die-hard Democrat he will be corrupted by the power Cheney has acquired for the office of the VP. I assure you nobody takes the Democrat/Republican divide seriously anymore, these days the divide is between imperialists and republicans. For those who believe that it takes an Emperor to rule an empire then the question of policy or various issue positions is almost totally irrelevant.
posted by nixerman at 12:32 PM on July 5, 2007

The powers that Bush has asked for / asserted have been, by and large, war-fighting powers. Bush's people want Democrat Presidents to have those powers, too, because Bush's people think of war as a foreign policy tool that tends to achieve the national interest when applied, regardless of by whom.

Or yes, what MattD said.
posted by nixerman at 12:40 PM on July 5, 2007

Response by poster: Ok, I guess this makes sense: war on terrorism never ends, and expanded executive power in a unending war favors the conservative agenda.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 12:48 PM on July 5, 2007

I think it's clear the republicans are establishing a new system of checks and balances on the executive branch. Aware that a president needs the broad perception of consensus on the part of the governed to operate freely, they manufacture this through corporate-run media. They effectively used the media to blunt Clinton's executive power, and they have employed the same to authorize even the most absurd excesses on Bush's part.

With an empowered executive branch, a conservative judiciary and a sympathetic corporate media, they scarcely need the legislative branch at all.
posted by felix betachat at 4:19 PM on July 5, 2007

Well, I'd like to add that there is very little danger in a strong executive branch even if the Democrats are in power. The favored democrats, Obama and Clinton, have made it as clear as possible that they won't threaten the core structures of power in the U.S. because they believe in them: the military-Industrial Complex, Wall Street, and the interrelated value systems. Under all the shiny rhetoric and dramatic flourishes, the Democratic Party are happy doing their bidding. Sure, there are outside candidates, like Kucinich et al, who have some respect for democracy, peace, and justice, but the central levers are held tight by the DLC camp (which includes the Clintons and Obama) and they'll give us a an updated version of the nineties: compassionate talk about racism and making America great for everyone and then the cynical "welfare-to-work" policies that gutted welfare and the Anti-worker Pro-rich policies of the NAFTA, WTO, CAFTA, and the FTAA. No conspiracies or stolen elections required.

I think there are two things to keep in mind when thinking about this: first, capitalists, despite their bragging about all the virtues of the market, hate democracy; and second, the easier it is for a single actor to pass through their plans, the easier and cleaner it is for everyone involved.
posted by history is a weapon at 7:32 PM on July 5, 2007

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