Balancing Executive and Legislature Power
In theory, the United States Constitution creates three co-equal branches of government, the executive, legislative, and judiciary. The Constitution places checks and balances on each of the three branches to ensure that no one branch gains too much power over the government or the political system. The executive and legislative branches interact with each other the most and so the checks and balances invoked most often between these branches. Although the executive and legislative are co-equal branches of government, throughout the nation’s history the relationship between the two branches has ebbed and flowed with the legislative branch and Congress sometimes dominating the executive branch and President and vice-versa. In the beginning of the twentieth century, Congress firmly had the upper hand in the tug-of-war between the two branches, over the past one hundred years, however, the President has come to dominate Congress, and it appears the President will only gain more power as time goes on. The Presidents of the twentienth century used wars and the general expansion of the government to expand their power, often times the United States Congress agreed and even encouraged these expansions of Presidential power.
The United States Congress is granted a wide array of power by the United States Constitutions. Congress has the power to pass laws, and override a Presidential veto (Const. Art I Sec. XII). Congress controls the funding the government through passing budgets and laying and collecting taxes (Const. Art I. Sec. XII and XII). Congress has the power to raise and support a military through appropriations of money (Const. Art I Sec. XIII). Congress may regulate commerce between the states and among foreign nations (Const. Art I Sec. XII). Congress may declare war (Const. Art I Sec. XII). The Senate must ratify any treaty the President wishes to enter into in order for the treaty to be binding on the nation (Const. Art II Sec. II). The Senate must confirm any Ambassadors, Supreme Court Justices, or Officers of the United States that the President nominate (Const. Art II Sec. II). If it chooses to use the full spectrum of its powers, the Congress can be an extremely powerful entity. Congress instead has choosen not to apply the full extent of their powers and this has allowed the President to expand much of his power – at the expense of the United States Congress.
Compared to Congress, the President has a very small numbers of powers. Over the twentieth century however, the President as been able to expand his power far past any of the founders ever envisioned. The President is the commander-in-chief and makes the final strategic and tactical decisions regarding the military, in both peace time and war time, the Constitutional check on this power is that Congress can choose whether to declare war and whether to fund the military.
Up until the nineteenth century it was routine for Congress to declare war in order for any American troops to be deployed to a foreign nation, which is no longer the case. The last time Congress declared was in World War II in 1941, yet American troops have been deployed around the globe continuously since that time (Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir, Tolbert, Spitzer, 307). With the Korean War looming in the 1950s, President Truman sent troops to Korea without getting a declaration of war from Korea. Congress was ready to declare war in Korea, but President Truman took unilateral action because, as he argued, his powers as commander-in-chief allowed him to determine when and where to deploy troops (Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir, Tolbert, and Spitzer, 308). Congress did not question Truman’s argument because it was a time of national crisis and Congress felt it was best for the nation’s government to show a united front. Shortly after President Truman deployed the troops, Congress passed a resolution agreeing with President Truman’s actions (Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir, Tolbert, and Spitzer 308). Every president since Truman has taken a similar view to President Truman. Since the Korean War troops have Presidents have unilaterally deployed troops to Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iraq, Afghanistan, and more.
Congress attempted to reign in the tendency of President’s to unilaterally deploying troops by passing the War Powers Resolution, and even overriding President’s Nixon veto (Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir, Tolbert, and Spitzer 308). The War Powers Resolution reiterated that only Congress can declare war, but did give the President the authority to deploy troops unilaterally in situations where American troops are under attack, but limits the unilateral deployment to sixty days (Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir, Tolbert, and Spitzer 308). The War Powers Resolutions shows that even though Congress was trying to retain its power, it was still willing conceding some of their to their power to the President, as evidenced by the War Powers Act allowing the President to unilaterally deploy troops for up to 60 days in certain situations. Presidents have ignored the War Powers Resolution as every President since its passage has unilaterally deployed troops, but none have invoked the War Powers Resolution to deploy those troops. There are serious questions to the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, so it is unlikely to be an issue.
In the last 100 years, Congress has chosen to delegate more and more of its authority and power to the President as the government has gotten bigger and deals with more issues. The government has been expanding at a rapid pace since the passage of new deal legislation in the 1930s (Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir, Tolbert, and Spitzer , 312). As the head of the executive branch of the Government the President is in charge of hundreds of executive departments and agencies (Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir, Tolbert, and Spitzer, 313). For example, when Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)in the 1970s, Congress gave the EPA the power to set air and water quality regulations, the EPA is an executive agency (Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir, Tolbert, and Spitzer, 313) Whereas Congress had the power to set and air and water quality regulations before the creation of the EPA, after the creation of the EPA, air and water regulations was ultimately controlled by the President as he is ultimately in charge of executive agencies. Another examples occurred after the September 11th terrorist in 2001. Congress created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002 (Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir, Tolbert, and Spitzer, 314). Congress delegates broad law enforcement and immigration powers to DHS, which the President controls as the head of the executive branch.
Part of the reason the President has been able to expand his power is because of his profile and his ability to use the “bully pulpit”. Congress is made up of 535 people from different parties, holding different views and representing different constituents and interests, because of this it is difficult for Congress to show a unified front, rather Congress comes off as a several fractured groups. The President, on the other hand, is one person entire nation, with the backing of an entire branch of government. The President can go on national news, do radio segments, or personally campaign for his platform and ideas and it will be far more impactful to the general public than any member of Congress doing the same (Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir, Tolbert, and Spitzer, 320).
In the Constitution, Congresses powers seem to far outweigh the President’s, however, over the past 100 years the President and the executive branch have become by far the most powerful branch of the government. This is become Presidents have become adept at expanding their power during times of crisis, through the general expansion of the federal government, and by engaging with the public.
U.S. Constitution, Art. I Sec. VII, VII, Art. II Sec. II
Ginsberg, Benjamin, Lowi, Theodore J., Spitzer, Robert, and Wier Robert. We the People, An Introduction to American Politics. New York: W. Norton and Company, 2010.