No man enters the presidency prepared for the office, yet few chief magistrates have managed a stage entry as startlingly rife with incompetence and impropriety as Donald Trump. The reason is that the inherent, inertial conservatism of the office disciplines most of its occupants.
Historians, as a profession, are understandably fascinated by change. Civilizations, as a phenomenon, are properly concerned with conservation. Tension is inevitable when the former apply criteria of success and failure ill-suited to the goals of the latter. The best recent evidence: C-Span has just released its Presidential Historian’s Survey for 2017. It is proof that historians celebrate Presidents the more change they achieve while consigning them to obscurity for governing prudently according to circumstance.
Is there some connection between republican government and nastiness? For politics in America is a nasty affair, is it not? Oh, I don’t mean it’s nasty the way Syrian or Ukrainian politics are nasty. Rather, they’re nasty in the way that politics in Britain and Canada aren’t nasty.
Are there any limits to the president’s discretion not to enforce a law? Conservative scholars think so. I say they’re wrong, and that we are witnessing the rise of what I call crown government in The Once and Future King. Where conservatives see a constitutional crisis, I see the inevitable working out of the pathological logic of presidential government.
I’ve always thought that the brouhaha over signing statements was much ado about nothing. During the presidency of George W. Bush, liberals discovered signing statements and decided they were bad and connected to a “lawless” executive enthralled by an idiosyncratic and dangerous theory of a unitary presidency. Except that signing statements as such had nothing to do with theories of the unitary executive, signing statements had long been issued by presidents across the ideological spectrum, and it was less that evident why signing statements in and of themselves were supposed to be dangerous. Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration has gone back to business as usual on many facets of executive power that were denounced by liberals just a few years ago, signing statements included.
But my esteemed colleague Mike Rappaport raises a more interesting question about signing statements.
Recently, President Obama signed a bill into law and then announced that he would not enforce (or at least feel bound by) a provision in the bill. Once again, President Obama has aggressively asserted executive power – in a way that prior Presidents have, but that he and Democrats criticized before he became President.
The law prohibited admittance to the U.S. by representatives to the United Nations determined to have “engaged in terrorist activity” against the U.S. or its allies. “Obama, in a signed statement attached to the measure, warned the legislation curtailed his “constitutional discretion” and that he planned to treat the law as ‘advisory.’” Obama could have vetoed the law, but he chose to sign it and then not regard it as legally binding.
There are several positions that one can have – based on the Constitution’s original meaning – in a situation where the President is presented with a bill that contains an unconstitutional provision.
1. One might believe the President has discretion to sign the bill and then to not enforce the unconstitutional provision. This appears more or less to be the position of Presidents of both parties.
This next Liberty Law Talk is with Frank Buckley about his new book The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America. Buckley's book is a profound challenge to the script of presidential power that many conservatives have read from over the past decades. Our conversation focuses on Buckley's argument that the American constitutional system has become dangerously unmoored from the congressional system of government that its ratifiers intended for it. This conversation explores a close reading of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to understand Buckley's claim of how indisposed the members of that convention were to an…
Who could be more American than former president Theodore Roosevelt? You might be surprised if you listen to the next Liberty Law Talk with Jean Yarbrough on her newest book, Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition. Winner of the American Political Science Association's Richard Neustadt Award, Yarbrough's book is an incredible study of Roosevelt as student at Columbia, as an accomplished historical writer, and as a statesman. We might conclude, Yarbrough observes, that it is Roosevelt's robust American nationalism, his vigorous spirit, and his environmentalism that produced our national parks which marks him as a prominent president. Indeed, his place…
It was March 27, 1809, three weeks into his presidency, and James Madison stood astride the world when he posted a letter to his predecessor Thomas Jefferson to inquire as to one particular secret of the office: “I forget whether the time piece in the sitting room [needs to be wound] monthly or weekly?”
That was then. This being now, as recently as 1996 the White House employed a presidential attendant several days a week whose actual job—no, really—was winding clocks. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested that even Woodrow Wilson, champion of presidential government, might not recognize the office today:
A president who wrote and typed his own speeches is now at some removes succeeded by presidents who do not know the names of most of their speechwriters, much less of their lawyers, economists, statisticians, strategists, and yes, as of 1989 the White House demographer. First the president got staff, then the staff got staff. (On the Law of Nations, 107)
The May Liberty Forum is now available and features a great exchange among Greg Weiner, Stephen Knott, and George Thomas on the need for Congress to re-assume its full powers of deliberative government. Weiner asks if we are all Wilsonians now? Neoconservatives, it should be said in fairness, brought the 28th President’s ideology through the front door in the plain light of day in the form of a moralized and expeditionary foreign policy. What few noticed is what got simultaneously smuggled in the back: a constitutional philosophy that suppresses Congress, elevates the Presidency and replaces deliberation and an awareness of human…