The asymetrically empowered executive
Matt Yglesias makes a point that needs to be made more often: Our government does not treat all presidential powers equally. Domestic policy is dominated by the legislature while foreign policy is run more or less autonomously by the executive. The product is rather weird:
If the President wants to do something like implement a domestic policy proposal he campaigned on — charge polluters for global warming emissions, for example — he faces a lot of hurdles. He needs majority support on a House committee or three. He also needs majority support on a Senate committee or three. Then he needs to get a majority in the full House of Representatives. And then he needs to de facto needs a 60 percent supermajority in the Senate. And then it’s all subject to judicial review.
But if Scooter Libby obstructs justice, the president has an un-reviewable, un-checkable power to offer him a pardon or clemency. If Bill Clinton wants to bomb Serbia, then Serbia gets bombed. If George W Bush wants to hold people in secret prisons and torture them, then tortured they shall be. And if Barack Obama wants to issue a kill order on someone or other, then the order goes out. And if Congress actually wants to remove a president from office, it faces extremely high barriers to doing so.
Whether or not you approve of this sort of executive power in the security domain, it’s a bit of a weird mismatch. You would think that it’s in the field of inflicting violence that we would want the most institutional restraint. Instead, the president faces almost no de facto constraints on his deployment of surveillance, military, and intelligence authority but extremely tight constraint on his ability to implement the main elements of the his domestic policy agenda.
I think this is more evidence that the nuances of how our government works are much more a product of evolution than intelligent design, which isn't something people like to think about very much. The Founders set up a basic structure and then a lot of stuff happened that changed how that structure worked in practice, and now we're here. That's very different than saying that we meant to be here.
I'm pretty sure that if we were building everything from scratch, no one would say, "Let's make elections the sort of thing you can win with a simple majority but make it so you can only pass legislation with a supermajority!" any more than we'd decide to let the president authorize secret prisons on his own time. But now it's happened and people have a status quo bias and attempts to change anything map onto ongoing political disputes and so it all just becomes more noise in our cacophonous national argument.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
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