Executive Powers Grow at Expense of Other Branches of Government

Sean Para, Columnist

Recent allegations in Congress against the CIA have highlighted a major trend in U.S. constitutional history in the past century. Since the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, the federal government has gained power relative to state governments, while within the federal government, the executive branch has become stronger relative to the judicial and legislative branches. The office of the president confers much more authority and prestige than it once did, and it is now more acceptable for the commander in chief to use his prerogative to force initiatives than it was a century ago.

Theodore Roosevelt came into office after President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. His administration was a landmark for progressivism in America and the projection of American power abroad. He used antitrust laws to break up large corporations such as the Northern Securities Company, the largest railway company in the U.S., and Standard Oil, which dominated the American oil industry.

The Food and Drug Administration was created to protect consumers from the dangers of unsafe food and drug production practices. These reforms ushered in a new age for the federal government and the presidency. Roosevelt used his “bully pulpit” to sway public opinion and portray himself as a populist.

The New Deal was the next major shift in how the executive branch interacted with the rest of the United States government. The Federal Reserve became the quasi-central bank it remains today. A rudimentary American welfare state came into being with the passage

of the Social Security Act, which created a social security system for all Americans and guaranteed unemployment benefits. The Works Progress Administration employed millions of Americans and left a lasting impression on American infrastructure and the way that the government deals with economic crises.

Let us not forget that a different Roosevelt put the New Deal into place. Although Franklin D. Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt were only distantly related, it is hard not to notice how much wealth and power have always been concentrated in the hands of so few Americans. This is truer today than it ever has been. Yet the reforms of the early 1900s were instrumental in making America a more egalitarian society, one in which a worker is (or at least used to be) guaranteed the right to belong to a union and a citizen is guaranteed some sort of basic safety net.

The accrual of executive power is not necessarily a bad thing. The two presidents listed above did use their clout to institute significant reforms. Did these reforms go far enough? Of course not, but they did stem from the growing division between the super rich and everyone else for almost 50 years.

Sadly, we have returned to a level of economic exploitation and plutocracy unseen since the 1920s. The danger of the shift toward presidential power is obvious. George W. Bush was able to use his prerogative to start two wars and undo many of the legislative achievements of previous presidents, from F.D.R. to J.F.K. What is necessary, therefore, in the grand balancing act of American government, is to have a president with some sense of dignity and public welfare. Sadly, many of our presidents have been devoid of these characteristics.