In The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America, I argued that the United States was drifting towards the one-man rule of an all-powerful President. It’s not something people, especially American conservatives, wanted to hear, but then I had a secret ally in Barack Obama. He’s the gift that would never stop giving—but for term limits.
Section 3331 of the United States Code prescribes the oath of office for the House of Representatives. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) has taken it 11 times, which is enough to commit to memory its opening pledge—to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; [to] bear truth faith and allegiance to the same.” Anyone who promises to do the same thing 11 times can probably find a shortcut, and Clyburn has evidently identified one: outsourcing constitutional protection to another branch of government.
“Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay, that was built in such a logical way, it ran a hundred years to the day?” If you haven’t, you’ve missed one of the most amusing poems of the nineteenth century, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s splendid satire of the American constitution. Shays or carriages break down, said Holmes, when one joint is stronger than the next. “There’s always somewhere a weakest spot, … and that’s the reason, beyond a doubt / A chaise breaks down but doesn’t wear out.” And so the Deacon built a carriage that wouldn’t break down because each part was a strong as the rest. On and on the carriage went, until 100 years from the day it was made it all turned into dust. “End of the wonderful one-hoss shay, logic is logic, that’s all I say.”
The poem was written three years before the outbreak of the Civil War, when the defects of a logical constitution seemed all too apparent to Holmes’ fellow Bostonians. Not that the Framers were logicians, of course. They were almost all practical politicians and simply strove to give us something better than what they had had.
The political puritans who control most editorial boards will doubtless mourn the tragically short life of the ardently sought détente between the White House and the ascendant Republicans in Congress. The good-government words were trotted out the day after the election—cooperation; grease the Capitol’s rusted legislative skids; we can hold hands to pass legislation and sing folk songs while we do—only to collapse under the President’s threat of unilateral action on immigration. Good. The good-government shtick—let us, said the President, “explore where we can make progress”; Mitch McConnell chimed in that “maybe there are things we can agree on to make progress for the country”—was nonsense to begin with.
One of the principal concerns about the Obama Administration are the scandals and the claims that it is violating the law. And sadly the congressional investigation process does not seem to be adequately doing its job. Thus, it is worthwhile thinking about alternative institutions.
The principal method used back in the 80s and 90s was the independent counsel (IC). Unfortunately, the independent counsel was both unconstitutional (for the reasons discussed in Justice Scalia’s dissent in Morrison v. Olson) and subject to serious problems. But while the original IC statute had these problems, that does not preclude employing a reformed IC to investigate the executive branch.
Let’s start with the unconstitutionality of the original IC. Under the old regime, the IC was not subject to the direction of the President and therefore in my view was unconstitutional. In addition, the IC was appointed by a court on the ground that he was an inferior officer, even though he was clearly in my view a principal officer who could be appointed only by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.
Both of these problems are rectifiable. First, the IC could be made formally subject to the direction of the President. The statute might provide that the IC is subject to the direction of and removal by the President, but that the Congress believes that presidential direction of the IC would be problematic as a policy matter and requests that the President not direct the IC. The statute might also require the IC to disclose to the public if the President gave him a direction and to keep notes of what the direction was. It is likely under this arrangement that the President would not give any orders to the IC, because he would pay a significant political price for doing so.
It is a close contest which recent assertion of executive authority crowns the rest, but the Administration’s potential skirting of the Senate’s treaty power in negotiating an international agreement on climate change ranks high in the running. The Constitution’s explicit partnering of the Presidency and the Senate in binding the nation in global agreements, combined with the two-thirds majority needed in the upper chamber of Congress to affirm them, points to the unique dangers of cutting one institution out of the process. President Obama is not the first to do this.
Richard Reinsch's post “Return to the Barbaric” leads me to think that there is indeed something different about the use of the executive power in the Obama Administration, though FDR set a new model–closing the banks and barring people from access to their savings, on the strength of nothing but the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917. FDR also traded destroyers for naval bases, when his Attorney General, Robert Jackson, told him that those destroyers were not his property to sell or trade. But as Reinsch and others have said, cashiering the president of GM, rewriting the law on Obamacare,…
I used to think I wanted the job security of the tenured professor but now I think what I really want is to run the CIA. Nothing, but nothing, gets those guys fired. John Brennan, for one, has retained his position after presiding over a formal, frontal assault on a coordinate branch of government. He has kept it after further mocking the principle of the separation of powers by redacting a Senate report on CIA interrogation practices so thoroughly that even already public material is blotted out.
The Massachusetts Constitution’s Declaration of Rights says, in its conclusion, that:
In the government of this commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.
That constitution, providing for a lower house, a Senate, and a governor armed with a (qualified) veto was, in many ways, the model for the federal Constitution drafted a few years later.
Proper as it is to dismiss President Obama’s daring his opponents to impeach him as childish posturing for his political base – secure as he is that the Senate’s Democratic majority would prevent his conviction regardless of any Constitutional evidence brought against him – nevertheless we must note that Obama risks disaster, as do children who play with matches in the presence of gasoline. His flaunting of impeachment sets up the alternative between the unfettered power of any president supported by a Senate majority and, on the other hand, the unfettered power of any Congressional majority coherent enough to remove presidents politically unpalatable to it.
Either way, Obama is opening the door to the partisan erasure of the distinction between executive and legislative power.