By the Power of Signing Statements, I Have the Power!

Must-read (albeit short) cover story in Congressional Quarterly this week, on exactly how far the goalposts have been moved on executive power during the Bush years.

Executive power is such an abstract subject that it rarely, if ever, comes up during a presidential campaign. It’s hard to pose the questions in a way that matters to voters, although most of this year’s Republican candidates did get grilled, in an October debate in Michigan, about whether they would launch military strikes against Iran without consulting Congress. That prospect seemed real at the time, before the release of a new intelligence estimate that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago.

Even when the subject of presidential power does come up, it can be easily dismissed because conventional wisdom holds that it’s nothing new for presidents to seek more power and resist congressional oversight. “From my experience, I don’t think any president walks into their job and starts thinking about how they can minimize their authority,” said Leon E. Panetta, who served eight terms as a California congressman before becoming budget director and then White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton.

But such general statements aren’t very helpful in predicting how assertive a presidential candidate will be once he or she is on the job. Other presidents have flexed their muscles: Jimmy Carter unilaterally withdrew the United States from a mutual-defense treaty with Taiwan in 1978, and Clinton launched weeks of U.S. airstrikes in Kosovo in 1999 without congressional authorization. Neither one, though, has come close to the Bush team in expanding presidential power for its own sake and refusing to consult Congress as a matter of principle.

I've heard Hillary Clinton talk about giving back some executive powers (consulting with Congress more, dusting off habeas corpus), but she hasn't exactly promised to. The pattern has been to make wilder and more expansive proclamations about executive power—I'll cut up Robert Byrd's health care card! I'll double Gitmo!—and watch the polls tick up.

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  • ||

    I've heard Hillary Clinton talk about giving back some executive powers

    If anyone believes that, give me a call. I've got some land here in Florida for sale. It's cheap, and a great investment...

  • Big Nanny||

    Maybe we are all so removed from any concept of what it is like to live in a dictatorship that when things start to slide in that direction, most people just cannot envission the possibilities.

  • Paul||

    I've heard Hillary Clinton talk about giving back some executive powers (consulting with Congress more, dusting off habeas corpus), but she hasn't exactly promised to.

    Mmmhmm.

  • ||

    "From my experience, I don't think any president walks into their job and starts thinking about how they can minimize their authority,"

    Ron Paul would. Bet on it.

  • ||

    "From my experience, I don't think any president walks into their job and starts thinking about how they can minimize their authority,"

    Ron Paul would. Bet on it.


    It think this has given rise to a new Standard Libertarian Disclaimer:

    When talking about politicians in general, one must always preclude Ron Paul...

  • the $50 is the new $20||

    Could a president Ron Paul make the IRS stand down using only a signing statement?

    How about an executive order?

  • squarooticus||

    Could a president Ron Paul make the IRS stand down using only a signing statement?

    How about an executive order?


    It depends on how fast he wanted to get impeached.

    Although that might precipitate a revolution with bullets, so there's some possibility it would stick.

  • ||

    Ron Paul would. Bet on it.

    Also Dodd and Richardson.

  • squarooticus||

    Also Dodd and Richardson.

    Nah. There would probably be a net expansion in both cases, just in different directions.

  • ||

    squarooticus,

    Let's remember, the question is not about overall government power, but the balance of power between the three branches.

    Richardson and Dodd both come across a great big overgrown state reps, or even city councillors. I would expect them both to be very deferential to the legislature.

  • ||

    """Maybe we are all so removed from any concept of what it is like to live in a dictatorship that when things start to slide in that direction, most people just cannot envission the possibilities."""

    I think that's true, and I add the "it can never happen to me" philosophy.

  • Episiarch||

    When fascism comes to America, it will be bearing a comfy chair and wrapped in red capes. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

  • ||

    We'll be regulated to death. That's how it'll happen here. Technically, we'll still have all our rights as we're lined up and dispatched forthwith.

  • ||

    We will be told that Consumer Choice = Freedom and all the other rights and responsibilites of citizens will be trampled under by a government and corporations which take our power away and treat us as nothing but consumers. This is how freedom ends in America.

  • ||

    James,

    No. I just don't get the corporations-are-as-dangerous-as-government idea. What, they're going to make us buy stuff?

  • ||

    We will be told that Consumer Choice = Freedom and all the other rights and responsibilites of citizens will be trampled under by a government and corporations which take our power away and treat us as nothing but consumers.

    I sure wish government treated me as a consumer. Say what you will about Wal-Mart, but when theres a crowded line they open another register line. Try that at the DMV.

  • e||

    Guliani 2008:

    A strong Skeletor for a secure Greyskull!

  • duster||

    She probably would not be as successful as the Bush admin has been in expanding executive power. So in that respect, her promise is accurate.

  • ||

    The DMVs in Massachusetts are incredibly efficient, well-run, helpful, and friendly.

    And as much as it pains me to say so, that replicant Mitt Romney and his Republican buddies made them that way.

  • ||

    The DMVs in Massachusetts are incredibly efficient, well-run, helpful, and friendly.

    So, it took a guy with a solid background in the private sector to make them that way? No surprise.

    Mark Warner did the same thing here with a lot of government agencies. His background? Cell phone mogul.

  • ||

    I think every single Democrat and most of the Republicans running for president would dial back executive power to some extent. Not Rudy. Probably not Hunter.

    The question is, who would dial it back to where it was when George Bush took the oath of office? Or even further, cuz Bubba wasn't so great in this area either.

  • ||

    I think every single Democrat and most of the Republicans running for president would dial back executive power to some extent. Not Rudy. Probably not Hunter.

    Links to their statements about the particular executive powers they would relinquish? Or is this optimism not founded on facts?

  • ||

    You mean like the one somebody already provided upthread about Hillary Clinton?

  • ||

    Oh, look, it was right in the original blog post.

    http://www.observer.com/2007/hillary-clinton-s-dry-caution-leaves-open-territory

    OK, now you can tell me how naive I am for thinking that what politicians say is worth considering.

  • ||

    prolefeed,

    Teachable moment here for you.

    There were six distinct commenters who made a prediction about how presidential candidates would treat executive power.

    Five of them were in agreement with your pre-existing political views. One was not.

    You asked exactly one commenter for evidence. Guess which one?

  • LarryA||

    "From my experience, I don't think any president walks into their job and starts thinking about how they can minimize their authority," said Leon E. Panetta

    George Washington?

    Ron Paul?

    Yeah, pretty short list.

    For the rest of this candidate crop, I'd bet the answer depends on whether the House and Senate are controlled by their party.

  • ||

    Joe, unteachable moment for you here, but here goes anyway:

    5 commenters make skeptical remarks about presidential candidates dialing back their power, where the historical evidence shows that all presidents since at least Woodrow Wilson increased the power of the executive branch during their term in office.

    1 commenter, with a long history of partisan Democratic bias, makes a broad, sweeping statement at odds with reality and the historical record as perceived by most people, and which would be biased toward Democrats: "I think every single Democrat and most of the Republicans running for president would dial back executive power to some extent."

    Which commenter would a reasonable person ask for links to back up their assertion?

    Now, if you were saying these politicians were likely to dial back some aspects of presidential powers, while increasing presidential powers overall, I wouldn't have challenged that statement.

    P.S. The link to Clinton's statement didn't work when I tried it. Got a better one, plus one for ALL the other Democrats, too?

  • src||

    Seems a little unrealistic to expect presidents to relinquish their own power, EFRP. (Except For Ron Paul; it must deserve its own acronym.)

    All we really have to rely on are checks and balances. I don't think it's a coincidence that now Congress is Democratic, Bush is facing more pressure about the Justice Department, Guantanamo, fuel efficiency, and so on. Maybe our best defense is a split government.

  • ||

    """No. I just don't get the corporations-are-as-dangerous-as-government idea."""

    Maybe not yet, but it's headed that way. Insurance companies have started forcing the companies they insure to apply all sorts of quasi-laws onto the employees. Things such as no smoking. Soon, if you're overweight you could be put on notice if you don't get on a weight program. It's not long before background checks will be common for almost all jobs.

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