I had one of those “I wish I had written that” moments on Monday of this week while I was reading The Telegraph’s Viewpoints page. Robert Lehane of Fort Valley wrote in to say that: “Our democratic republic has been transformed into a constitutional monarchy with very little emphasis on the Constitution.”
Lehane did a great job of succinctly stating what I believe has been a very bad trend with our system of government that probably started with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and has been getting worse ever since.
When our country was founded, the men who set up our government had just escaped the tyranny of a monarchy and they carefully designed the Constitution to include plenty of checks and balances on the executive branch so that our president wouldn’t wield too much unchecked power.
It was a good plan, because history shows that it’s never wise to invest too much power in a single human being. People are much too fallible to be given god-like powers over other people. Even the best among us are not fit to make unchecked decisions that dictate everyone else’s lives.
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Unfortunately our recent presidents have gradually accumulated so much control over our government and our society that they are beginning to take on an air of royalty.
They regularly get us into wars without the constitutionally-mandated declaration from Congress. They bully Congress into passing poorly thought-out, feel-good legislation by manipulating public opinion. And they seem to have an endless capacity to direct massive amounts of public funding in whatever direction they choose.
I don’t believe that’s what the Founding Fathers had in mind. There is an obvious intention within the Constitution to check every presidential power with oversight from the Congress. For example:
A law passed by Congress requires the president’s signature to go into effect, but a veto can be overridden by a two-thirds majority in Congress.
The president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but only Congress has the power to declare war.
The president can enter into treaties with foreign nations, but only with two-thirds majority approval from the Senate.
The last time Congress declared war was during World War II, but we’ve spent billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives in undeclared wars around the world since then at the discretion of the man who was in the White House at the time.
As for spending bills and other legislation, the president seems to get his way on those counts as long as he can amass public opinion behind his position. It is very difficult for Congress to “vote their conscience” when the president is all over the news cheer leading for his pet causes.
In fact, it is the manipulation of public opinion that is probably the key to the rise of presidential powers in modern times. FDR used the radio to connect directly with the people when he wanted to “rescue” the country from depression via massive government spending. And does anyone really think Congress could have done anything to derail the space program once Kennedy made his stirring speech on the subject to an enraptured TV audience?
It’s much easier to relate to a single charismatic individual than that boring cast of hundreds who no one watches on CSPAN. We like having one guy we can love or hate and blame things on when they go wrong.
The fact is, we haven’t put up much of a fight as our presidents have gradually rendered the checks and balances on their powers more and more irrelevant. It’s a trend that I don’t expect to change.
Our president is basically the star of his own reality show now, and we all want someone who can act the part of a decisive leader and make us feel better about whatever is making us anxious at the moment. It sounds rather silly, but we’ve become a nation of silly people.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Centerville. Readers can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at nscsense.blogspot.com.