Changes in the Executive Branch

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Changes in the Executive Branch

The Constitution of the United States was written at the Federal Convention in 1787 and adopted in 1788. It divides the federal government into three main branches. The legislative branch, Congress, is the main lawmaker. The executive branch is the primary law enforcer. The judicial branch, made up of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, hears and decides cases under federal law.

The Constitution makes the president the head of the executive branch. Under the Constitution, the president has power to enforce the nation's laws, command the army and navy, veto laws passed by Congress, and oversee relations with foreign nations.

The Constitution also provides for a vice president to be elected with the president. The vice president replaces the president if he or she dies or leaves office before the end of the presidential term. The vice president has taken over as president nine times in history, eight times following the death of the president and once after the president resigned. The vice president also serves as president of the Senate, with the power to break tie votes when the whole Senate is evenly divided on an issue. As of 2005, vice presidents have cast tie-breaking votes about 233 times. More than half of these happened before 1850, when fewer states meant a smaller Senate with more chances of an even split. Most vice presidents since the 1870s have cast fewer than ten tie-breaking votes.

The executive branch has changed greatly since adoption of the Constitution. Many changes have been the result of constitutional amendments. An amendment is a change to the Constitution agreed to by at least three-fourths of the states. Many constitutional amendments have affected the powers of the executive branch or the way the president and vice president are elected.

The Constitution, however, does not contain a thorough description of the powers of the executive branch. Instead, the powers have grown and changed over the years through presidential interpretation and congressional legislation. Congress can affect presidential power because while the executive branch enforces the laws, Congress makes the laws in the first place.

Housing soldiers in private homes: the Third Amendment

Nine of the thirteen American states had to ratify, or approve, the Constitution for it to become law between the ratifying states. Some of the states were wary of giving so much power to the federal government without including a bill of rights in the Constitution. A bill of rights is a law that protects the rights and freedoms of the people from unfair government action.

Ratification of the Constitution was done by state conventions, which contained delegates elected by the free men of the states. Some of the delegates refused to ratify the Constitution unless Congress promised to add a bill of rights to it soon after ratification. The delegates who supported the Constitution made this promise, and by summer 1788, ten states had ratified the Constitution.

Virginia delegate James Madison (1751–1836), who would be the fourth president of the United States, took it upon himself to draft the bill of rights. The bill that he and Congress proposed contained twelve amendments. By 1791, the states had ratified ten of them. Those ten amendments have come to be called the Bill of Rights.

The Third Amendment says, "No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered [housed] in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law." This amendment was important to Americans then because years earlier, British monarchs had housed soldiers in private homes against the will of the owners.

The Third Amendment prevents the president of the United States from housing soldiers in private homes as the British monarchs had done. It reflects the fact that many Americans felt the federal government should be required to respect the privacy of home life in America.

Searches and seizures: the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment says: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

The purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to protect people from unreasonable searches and seizures. A search is when the government looks through a person's house, car, or other property for evidence of a crime. A seizure is when the government arrests a person suspected of committing a crime, or takes a person's property to hold as evidence of a crime.

Under the Fourth Amendment, searches and seizures must be reasonable. In general, a search or seizure is unreasonable unless the government has probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. Probable cause means a reasonable belief that a crime probably has been committed. If the government has probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, it can arrest the suspected criminal and seize evidence of the suspected crime.

Before it conducts a search or seizure, however, the government usually needs to obtain a warrant. A warrant is a document from a court saying that the government has probable cause to conduct the search or seizure. Courts issue warrants after the government shows them evidence that a crime probably has been committed. The evidence often includes a sworn statement by the victim or by a criminal investigator.

Because the executive branch has primary responsibility for law enforcement, the president's law enforcement agencies are the main departments that must obey the Fourth Amendment. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the agency in the Department of Justice that investigates violations of federal law. When conducting investigations, the FBI often needs to arrest people suspected of committing crimes or seize evidence of suspected crimes.

In general, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies are not supposed to conduct searches or seizures without getting a warrant based on probable cause that a crime has been committed. Through interpretation of the Fourth Amendment, however, the Supreme Court has created many exceptions to this rule. For example, law enforcement personnel can arrest someone without a warrant when they catch him or her committing a crime.

Criminal prosecutions: the Fifth and Sixth Amendments

After a law enforcement agency conducts an investigation, it might decide to charge someone with committing a federal crime. If it has enough evidence for the charge, the agency can have the Department of Justice prosecute the suspected criminal. The Department of Justice is the agency in the executive branch that prosecutes criminal and civil cases for the federal government. Criminal cases involve violations of criminal laws, such as murder laws, which serve to protect society from harm. Civil cases involve private disputes that are not necessarily crimes, such as when one person breaks a contract, or agreement, with another person. Wrongful conduct, however, can violate both criminal and civil law, such as when one person hits another person, injuring her seriously. The government can file criminal charges against the attacker for criminal battery, and the injured person can file a civil case to recover money for her injuries.

The Fifth and Sixth Amendments give accused criminals specific rights in criminal prosecutions. The Fifth Amendment has four such rights. First, a person may not be prosecuted for a capital or infamous offense unless a grand jury decides that the government has enough evidence against the suspect. A capital offense is one punishable by death, such as first degree murder. An infamous offense involves treason, dishonesty, or a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than a year. Treason means levying war against the United States or giving aid and comfort to its enemies. A grand jury is a group of citizens that reviews the government's evidence to decide whether the evidence is enough to justify a criminal trial.

Second, the government cannot try a person twice for the same crime. Third, prosecutors cannot force a suspected criminal to testify at his or her trial. (When a prosecutor or investigator questions a suspect and he or she refuses to answer, it is called "taking the fifth." This means that instead of answering the question, the suspect is asserting his or her fifth amendment right not to incriminate himself or herself.) Fourth, the government cannot take away a person's life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Due process generally means that accused criminals cannot be punished without notice of the charges against them and a fair trial.

The Sixth Amendment gives an accused criminal five rights. First, an accused criminal must be tried in a speedy, public trial by a fair jury in the state or district where the crime was committed. A fair jury means a jury of people who have not made up their minds about the guilt or innocence of the accused before trial. Second, accused criminals must be informed of the charges against them. Third, an accused criminal has the right to cross-examine witnesses who testify against him or her. Fourth, an accused criminal has the right "to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor." This means that if there is a witness who has testimony favorable to the defendant, the defendant can use the power of the court to force that witness to appear at his or her trial to testify. Fifth, an accused criminal has the right to have an attorney represent him or her.

Election of the president and vice president

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention struggled with the question of how the president of the United States should be elected. Some thought the people should elect the president directly in popular elections. Others thought Congress should select the president. The system the delegates settled on is called the electoral college, or electoral system.

Under this system, each state gets to choose a number of electors equal to the total number of senators and representatives it has in Congress. The electors meet in their state capitals on a day chosen by Congress to select the president and vice president for a four-year term. As the Constitution was written in 1787, electors each voted for two people. The person who received the most number of electoral votes became the next president, and the person who received the second most number of votes became the next vice president. Over the years, this system caused problems and situations that were eventually eliminated with the Twelfth, Twenty-second, and Twenty-third Amendments to the Constitution. Even so, discussion over the merits of the electoral college periodically surface, most recently after the 2000 presidential election, when Vice President Al Gore (1948–) received more popular votes than his challenger, Texas governor George W. Bush (1946–), but still lost the election because Bush received more electoral votes. This also happened in the presidential elections of 1824, 1876, and 1888.

The Twelfth Amendment: presidents and vice presidents

The presidential election of 1800 was the fourth under the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9) was the presidential candidate for the Democratic-Republican Party. Aaron Burr (1756–1836) was the Republican Party's candidate for vice president. After the electoral votes were tallied, Jefferson and Burr tied with seventy-three votes each.

The Constitution required the House of Representatives to break the tie. Each state had one vote in the House for this purpose. The Democratic-Republicans controlled eight states, the Federalist Party controlled six, and two states were evenly divided. Even though the Democratic-Republican electors intended for Jefferson to be president, it was possible for Burr to win the election in the House. When the House failed to come to a majority result for days, the Federalists considered passing a law making the president pro tem of the Senate the president of the United States until the election of 1804. (The president pro tem is a senator appointed by the Senate to preside over the Senate when the vice president of the United States, whose constitutional duty is to preside, cannot be there.) The president pro tem of the Senate at the time was a Federalist.

In the end, Jefferson won the election in the House. The situation, however, led Congress to propose the Twelfth Amendment in December 1803. Under the Twelfth Amendment, electors still vote for two people, but they cast one vote specifically for the presidency and the other for the vice presidency. The Twelfth Amendment became part of the Constitution in September 1804.

The Twenty-second Amendment: a presidential term limit

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention wanted presidents to be able to serve more than one four-year term. Scholars say the delegates expected George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) to be the first president, and Washington was well liked among them. Sure enough, Washington was elected in 1788 and 1792, serving two four-year terms from 1789 to 1797.

Washington set an example by deciding not to seek a third term of office. Every president followed Washington's example until Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) served over three full terms from 1933 to 1945. Roosevelt, who was a member of the Democratic Party, died in 1945, three months into his fourth term.

In 1947, when Congress was controlled by the Republican Party, it proposed an amendment to limit presidents to two terms in office. Over three-fourths of the state legislatures approved the amendment by March 1951, making it the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution.

The Twenty-second Amendment is controversial. Some Americans think it is healthy to require the country to elect a new person at least every eight years. Others think restricting America's choice of the president is undemocratic. President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004), a popular president who served two terms from 1981 to 1989, called the Twenty-second Amendment the most undemocratic part of the Constitution.

House and Senate Roles in Presidential Elections

Every four years in November, Americans go to the polls to vote in a presidential election. Under the Constitution, however, the president and vice president are not elected by the voters. They are selected by people called electors. This system is called the electoral college.

The Constitution allows each state to appoint a certain number of electors. The number for each state is equal to the total number of representatives and senators the state has in Congress. In addition, the District of Columbia, which is not a state, gets at least three electors.

Under state law as of 2005, the electors are chosen by the voters in each state at the time of the November presidential election. After the election, the electors meet in their state capitals to cast votes for the president and the vice president. Electors usually cast their votes for the candidates who won the popular vote in their state in the November election (or in their district, in the case of Nebraska and Maine). The Constitution, however, does not require electors to vote like this.

After all the electors in all the states have voted, their votes are tallied in Congress. The people who get a majority of the votes for president and vice president win the election.

If nobody gets a majority of the votes for president, the Constitution requires the House of Representatives to choose the president. The House chooses between the people who got the first, second, and third most electoral votes. The members of the House do not vote individually, but instead vote in groups based on the states they represent. The person who receives votes from a majority of states becomes the president.

If nobody gets a majority of the votes for vice president, the Senate makes the choice. Senators vote individually, choosing from the people who got the first and second most electoral votes. A majority of senators must vote for a person for that person to become the vice president.

As of 2005, two presidential elections have been determined by the House. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and vice presidential candidate Aaron Burr (1756–1836) received an equal number of electoral votes. The Constitution then did not distinguish between electoral votes for the president and those for the vice president. This sent the election to the House.

The House voted thirty-six times before electing Jefferson by a majority. Although voters clearly wanted Jefferson to be the president, members of the House from the Federalist Party were fearful of a Jefferson presidency. Jefferson was a strong supporter of state power and people's rights, whereas the Federalist Party wanted the nation's government to be stronger than the states. The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1804, changed the Constitution to prevent presidential candidates and their vice presidential running mates from getting equal numbers of electoral votes. Instead of simply casting two votes as they had under the original Constitution, electors under the Twelfth Amendment label their two votes, one for president and the other for vice president.

The election of 1824 produced another electoral conflict. U.S. senator Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) of Tennessee received 99 electoral votes, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) received 84, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford (1772–1834) got 41, and Speaker of the House Henry Clay (1777–1842) received 37. Because nobody got a majority, the House had to choose between the leading three vote-getters. Adams won on the first House ballot because the candidate who was no longer eligible, Clay, convinced the states that had voted for him to support Adams. This resulted in Adams receiving the necessary majority of state support to be elected. Adams, in return, appointed Clay as his secretary of state. Jackson's supporters called it a "corrupt bargain," accusing Adams of promising Clay the position in exchange for getting support from the states that had voted for Clay during the election.

Twenty-third Amendment

The city of Washington in the District of Columbia is the seat of government for the United States. It was created in 1790 from land given to the federal government by Maryland. Until 1964, the residents of Washington, D.C., were not allowed to participate in presidential elections.

In 1961, America adopted the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment allows Washington, D.C., to select a number of electors equal to the number of senators and representatives it would have if it were a state, but no more than the number of electors allowed for the least populous state (currently, Wyoming). Electors from Washington, D.C., get to vote for the president and vice president just like electors from the fifty states.

Voting rights: the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-fourth, and Twenty-sixth Amendments

When the delegates wrote the Constitution in 1787, voting rights were a matter of state law. In general, the thirteen American states allowed only free men to vote, and only if they owned a certain amount of property or paid a poll tax. (A poll tax is a tax that a person must pay in order to be allowed to vote.) The delegates thought about including a property requirement in the Constitution for federal voting rights, but decided against it.

The gradual growth of democracy since 1787 is reflected in constitutional amendments that have expanded voting rights for Americans. The Fifteenth Amendment, adopted in 1870, made it illegal to deny a person the right to vote based on his or her race or color. The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920, gave women the right to vote. The Twenty-fourth Amendment, adopted in 1964, made it illegal to charge a poll tax for presidential and congressional elections. Finally, the Twenty-sixth Amendment, ratified in 1971, extended voting rights to citizens at least eighteen years of age (most states had used twenty-one).

The veto power as a policy tool

Article I, Section 8, gives the president the power to veto, or reject, laws passed by Congress. Congress can override a veto only by a two-thirds vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Aware that his actions would set an example, President Washington used the veto power only twice, when he thought Congress had passed a law that violated the Constitution. Presidents through Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), who served from 1861 to 1865, generally used the veto power sparsely, too.

Starting with Andrew Johnson (1808–1875), who served from 1865 to 1869, presidents began to use the veto power aggressively. They became more willing to veto laws of which they simply disapproved, whether or not the law might violate the Constitution. President Franklin Roosevelt, for example, used the veto power 635 times during his twelve years and three months in office.

Although the Constitution makes Congress the primary lawmaker, aggressive use of the veto power has led scholars to call the president the chief legislator. A veto threat gives the president great power to shape Congress's overall legislative agenda, or plan. It also gives the president great power to influence the content of the individual laws passed by Congress. This comes from the fact that it is very hard to override a presidential veto. According to a study by the Congressional Research Service in April 2004, Congress had overturned only 106, or 7.1 percent, of the 1,484 return vetoes to that point in history.

The budget process

The federal budget is the plan for how the government is going to spend money during the year. Under the Constitution, Congress is the branch that assigns federal money to the government's departments and agencies, including those in the executive and judicial branches. This makes Congress responsible for preparing the government's budget each year.

Until 1921, departments and agencies from all branches submitted budget requests directly to Congress. Congress used the requests to prepare a budget for the upcoming year. In making the budget, Congress was not bound by the budget requests. Instead, it could adjust the requests up or down to arrive at a final budget.

In 1921, Congress passed a law called the Budget and Accounting Act. The law gave the president responsibility to assemble budget requests and submit a proposed budget to Congress each year. It also created a new executive office, the Bureau of the Budget, to help the president with this task. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt moved the Bureau of the Budget from the Department of the Treasury into the Executive Office of the President, which is the office that helps the president run the executive branch. In 1970, President Richard Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) renamed the bureau the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Every year in the spring, federal departments and agencies submit budget requests to the OMB. OMB officials spend the rest of the year helping the president transform these requests into a proposed budget. The president presents the proposed budget to Congress the following February. From there, Congress works the budget into revenue and spending laws for the fiscal year that runs from the upcoming October 1 through September 30.

In theory, Congress is not bound by the president's proposed budget. In practice, the president's proposal carries a lot of weight. This means that although Congress had the most budget power before 1921, the president has had greater power since passage of the Budget and Accounting Act that year.

Growth of the bureaucracy

A major change in the executive branch since 1789 has been the growth of the number and size of its departments, agencies, and other offices. In 1789, President George Washington's administration had only three departments: State, Treasury, and War. There were other offices, too, such as the Office of the Attorney General, who is the lead lawyer for the federal government. Washington's administration employed just a few hundred people at the time.

As of 2005, the executive branch contains fifteen departments, hundreds of agencies and offices, and many regulatory commissions, employing a total of about 2.7 million people altogether. Departments are offices with responsibility for large areas of the federal government. The fifteen departments are: Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health & Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing & Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs.

Agencies are offices that handle specific areas of government, such as the American Battle Monuments Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Aviation Administration. The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, regulates airlines and air traffic in the United States and investigates aircraft accidents. Regulatory commissions are offices that regulate a particular area of the economy. Examples include the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates food and drug safety, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which regulates workplace safety. Regulatory commissions wield tremendous power in their areas of expertise. The FDA, for example, has the final say on what drugs are allowed to reach the shelves of America's pharmacies and drugstores.

Executive Office of the President

As the executive branch grew, it became difficult for presidents and their staffs to manage it. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Executive Office of the President (EOP). The purpose of the EOP is to help the president manage the executive branch.

As of 2005, the EOP contains over a dozen separate councils, boards, and offices. Most presidents have either a White House Office or an Office of Chief of Staff that oversees the president's White House operations and close advisors. These advisors include people who schedule the president's appointments and write his speeches. The White House press secretary answers questions from, and feeds information to, the nation's newspaper, television, and other journalists. The press secretary often holds press conferences at the White House to make important announcements or answer questions about significant events.

The EOP contains many offices outside the White House Office. The OMB helps the president prepare a proposed federal budget each year The National Security Council (NSC) helps the president plan national security, or safety, and foreign policies. The National Economic Council and the Council of Economic Advisors inform the president about the nation's economy. The Office of National Drug Control Policy helps the president set the nation's drug control policies. The Office of Administration helps the entire EOP run by providing financial management and information technology support, human resources management, library and research assistance, facilities management, purchasing, printing and graphics support, security, and mail and messenger operations.

Executive orders

An executive order is an order signed by the president for exercising a power or duty of the executive branch. The Constitution does not mention executive orders. As of 2005, however, executive orders have been used by every president except William Henry Harrison (1773–1841), who died after just one month in office. According to the Congressional Quarterly's Powers of the Presidency, presidents mainly use executive orders to establish agencies, change bureaucratic rules and procedures, and carry out laws passed by Congress.

On January 29, 2001, for example, President George W. Bush signed an executive order to create the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The office develops policies to allow religious and community groups in America to compete for federal funding for fighting social problems such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, and drug addiction. Supporters say the program will allow religious and community groups to help improve America. Opponents say the program will unconstitutionally give federal money to programs for spreading religion. The First Amendment says the federal government may not respect an establishment of religion, which means to favor one or more religions over others.

President Washington signed only eight executive orders (that historians know about) during his eight years in office. The second president, John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801), signed just one, and the third president, Thomas Jefferson, signed just four. Use of executive orders became more frequent with the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and increased dramatically with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–9) at the start of the twentieth century.

Many executive orders are routine, but they can also be controversial. If Congress passes a law that does not clearly define how a president is supposed to enforce it, executive orders issued under the law can essentially create new law. Presidents sometimes use executive orders to avoid congressional involvement in important policy decisions. For example, some people think it should be up to Congress, not the president alone, to set national policies for including religious organizations in federal funding programs. Finally, many executive orders are written to keep government information secret. Some scholars believe these kinds of executive orders are undemocratic, giving the president power that nobody can challenge. Others think they are necessary executive functions.

Executive privilege

Executive privilege is presidential power to keep information secret from Congress, investigators, the courts, and the public. The Constitution does not mention an executive privilege. Instead, presidents have created it through practice.

The question of executive privilege first arose after November 1791, during President Washington's first term in office. That month, General Arthur St. Clair (1736–1818) led a failed military expedition against Native Americans in which hundreds of American lives were lost. In March 1792, the House of Representatives created a committee to investigate the expedition. The committee asked Washington's office to provide testimony and documents concerning the expedition.

Washington met with his cabinet to consider the request. (The cabinet is a group of the president's most important advisors, including the heads of the executive departments.) With his cabinet's advice, Washington decided that Congress could request information from a president, but that presidents could withhold information that might harm the public good. Although the failed expedition was embarrassing, Washington decided that disclosing information about it would not harm the public good, so he gave the House committee the information it wanted.

Following Washington's example, presidents generally have used the executive privilege to shield information relating to national security, diplomatic negotiations, and other governmental functions for which secrecy is arguably important. Some experts agree that secrecy is necessary for presidents to handle matters relating to national safety and the well-being of the public. Others believe secrecy is undemocratic because citizens cannot hold presidents accountable for their actions if the actions are secret.

The Pullman Strike of 1894

Just as the Roman consuls of the Roman Republic were in charge of the military and the monarchs of England controlled its soldiers, the president of the United States is commander in chief of American military forces. Military forces serve to protect a nation from foreign attack.

The U.S. Constitution also authorizes the federal government to use the military internally. The Militia Clause of Article I, Section 8, says Congress may "provide for calling forth the [State] militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions." The Protection Clause of Article IV, Section 4, says, "The United States . . . shall protect each of [the States] against invasion; and on application of the legislature, or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened) against domestic violence."

The Founding Fathers wrote the Protection Clause to allow the federal government to use the military to suppress rebellions against state governments. The federal government, however, has also used the military to suppress strikes by workers against businesses.

The Pullman Strike of 1894 is one of the most famous examples of this tactic. As told by Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States, the Pullman Palace Car Company manufactured railway cars in the town of Pullman near Chicago, Illinois. Company workers lived in Pullman, paying the company for rent and utilities. As of June 1894, in the midst of a nationwide economic recession, the company had lowered worker pay five times without dropping rent charges. For these and other reasons, the workers went on strike. (A strike is a work stoppage to protest working conditions.)

According to Zinn:

The American Railway Union [an organization for railroad workers] . . . asked its members all over the country not to handle Pullman cars. Since virtually all passenger trains had Pullman cars, this amounted to a boycott of all trains—a nationwide strike. Soon all traffic on the twenty-four railroad lines leading out of Chicago had come to a halt. Workers derailed freight cars, blocked tracks, pulled engineers off trains if they refused to cooperate. . . . On July 6, hundreds of cars were burned by strikers.

President Grover Cleveland (1837–1908; served 1885–89, 1893–97) decided to send the federal military to help the local police and state militia end the strike. Cleveland reasoned that the strike was interfering with commerce between the states, which Congress has the power to regulate. On July 7, fourteen thousand troops, militia, and police clashed with the strikers. Fourteen people died, fifty-three were seriously wounded, and seven hundred were arrested, ending the strike.

During the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001), the issue of executive privilege became particularly controversial. Nixon tried to use the privilege in 1973 to hide information about the Watergate scandal from a Senate investigation. The Watergate scandal involved burglary of the offices of the Democratic National Committee in 1972 by men hired by the Republican Party. High-level officials in the Nixon administration may have had knowledge of the planned burglary, and Nixon himself may have participated in efforts to cover up the burglary. Clinton tried to use the privilege to hide information from a federal prosecutor relating to whether he lied under oath when he denied having a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky (1973–), a twenty-one-year-old White House intern.

In both cases, federal courts forced Nixon and Clinton to disclose the requested information. The general public sentiment held that Nixon and Clinton abused the privilege by using it to try to hide personal information that did not relate to matters of national security or other important governmental functions.

War powers

The Constitution makes the president the commander in chief of the army and navy. Congress, however, has the power to create the army and navy, assign government money to them, make rules for their operation, and declare war.

Historians generally agree that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention carefully divided the military powers in the Constitution. They feared giving the president absolute control over the armed forces. They even rejected a proposal that the president have the power to declare war.

By giving Congress the power to declare war, the delegates intended to prevent offensive military operations without congressional authorization. In other words, the power to declare war is not supposed to be a mere formality. Presidents are supposed to have the power to use military forces without a declaration of war only when necessary to defend against a sudden attack.

In practice, American military activity has not been constrained to declarations of war and defensive operations. As of 2005, Congress has declared war for only five wars, including the War of 1812 (1812–15), the Mexican-American War (1846–48), the Spanish-American War (1898), World War I (1914–18), and World War II (1939–45). American forces, however, have engaged in hundreds of offensive military conflicts. Congress often approves military action after it happens, but it also criticizes presidents for engaging in military activity without congressional authorization.

Some scholars think presidents must have the power to engage in military activity whenever they think it is necessary, even without congressional approval. Others think such activity violates the Constitution and gives dangerous power to the president.

In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution to try to strengthen the constitutional separation of military powers. President Nixon vetoed the bill, but both chambers of Congress voted to override the veto.

The War Powers Resolution says presidents should send troops into hostile situations only with a congressional declaration of war or other congressional authorization, or to defend against an attack. It also says presidents must consult with Congress whenever possible before committing troops to hostile situations. Finally, it requires presidents to remove troops from hostile situations within sixty days unless there is a congressional declaration of war or other congressional authorization.

Every president since the passage of the resolution has called it unconstitutional, or violated its terms, or both. Presidents generally say their duty as commander in chief gives them power to use military forces without congressional approval. Occasionally some members of Congress protest when a president violates the resolution, but Congress usually does nothing to enforce it. On December 20, 1989, for example, President George Bush (1924–; served 1989–93) sent fourteen thousand military forces to Panama to join thirteen thousand American forces already there to capture General Manuel Noriega (1938–), then a military leader of Panama. Noriega was accused of election fraud and drug violations. Bush never asked for congressional approval for the invasion. Because the invasion was popular with Americans, Congress did not complain.

The president as chief economist

The economy is a term that means the business and employment activity in a nation. When business activity is strong and employment rates are high, meaning most working people have a job, the economy is in an inflationary state. When business activity sags and unemployment rates rise, the economy is in a recession.

The Constitution does not mention the national economy. Congress, however, has the power to regulate things that affect the economy, such as taxes, commerce, and money. When the Constitution was written in 1787, people generally did not think the government was responsible for the health of the economy.

That thinking changed with the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt became president in 1933 when the American economy was in the middle of the Great Depression (1929–41). At the worst point of the Depression, one out of every three to four working Americans did not have a job. In those desperate times, people began to look more to the federal government for help with the economy. Roosevelt responded with his famous New Deal, a set of government programs designed to pump federal money into the economy to spur job growth.

As of 2005, the president is often considered the chief economist for the nation. Presidential candidates often include their own economic plans. When the economy is doing well, people generally credit the president, and when the economy is doing poorly, people generally blame the president.

The expectation that presidents can control the economy is unrealistic. Presidents have the power to affect the economy to some extent through the policy decisions they and their advisors make. The overall health of the economy, however, is determined by many complicated factors, all of which are beyond the power of the government to control completely. Even professional economists cannot always predict what will happen to the economy from one year to the next. Still, Americans have come to expect presidents to have a plan for improving a bad economy or making a good one even better.

The future

America is often called the land of opportunity. Americans are generally free to choose the kinds of jobs they want, although people with more money have more choices than people with less money. One of the key reasons immigrants from around the world move to America is to improve their job or career opportunities. Many American children grow up with dreams of becoming the president of the United States.

In spite of the opportunities in America, the office of the presidency is out of reach for most people. As of 2005, every American president has been a white, Christian man of European ancestry. Presidents are typically much wealthier than most Americans before ever setting foot in the White House. And despite the existence of many political parties, every president has been a member of either the Republican or Democratic Party since 1853, when Democrat Franklin Pierce (1804–1869; served 1853–57) took office.

Gender and religious diversity

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 78 percent of Americans age eighteen and older considered themselves to be Protestant or Catholic Christians in 2002. It is not surprising, then, that all of the presidents have been Christian, since people tend to elect representatives and leaders they perceive to be most like themselves.

Women, however, make up about 51 percent of the population, but a woman has never occupied the office of the presidency. America is behind other nations in this regard. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1917–1984; served 1966–77, 1980–84) of India; Prime Minister Golda Meir (1898–1978; served 1969–74) of Israel; Presidents Mary Robinson (1944–; served 1990–97) and Mary McAleese (1951–; served 1997–) of Ireland; Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925–; served 1979–90) of Great Britain; and President Tarja Halonen (1943–; served 2000–) of Finland are notable female leaders from around the world.

Most Americans say they would vote for a female president. Presidents, however, tend to be former vice presidents, governors, members of Congress, and high-ranking military officers. Women are underrepresented in these positions, but that is changing with growing political and social equality for women.

In 1984, for example, U.S. congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro (1935–) of New York became the first female vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket, running with the Democratic presidential contender, former vice president Walter Mondale (1928–). (They lost to President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush). In 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor (1930–) became the first female Supreme Court justice; Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933–) was the second, in 1993. In 1997, Madeleine Albright (1937–) became the first woman secretary of state; Condoleezza Rice (1954–) held the same position following her appointment in 2005. As of 2005, many people speculate that former first lady and U.S. senator Hillary Clinton (1947–) of New York will run for president in 2008.

Financial diversity

Presidential campaigns cost hundreds of millions of dollars, much of which goes to advertising, hiring advisors, election experts, and other staff members, and conducting research into people and issues to determine the best way to win an election. It is not surprising, therefore, that presidents tend to be wealthy. Wealthy people can use as much of their own money as they want to in their presidential campaigns. Wealthy people also have more money to donate to presidential campaigns, giving them greater financial influence in the electoral process.

Some Americans think contributing money to presidential campaigns is a right protected by the First Amendment. (The First Amendment protects the right to speak, assemble in groups, and petition the government for laws and programs.) These Americans do not want to limit the ability to contribute to such campaigns.

Other Americans think the high cost of becoming president makes the position undemocratic because it favors the wealthy. They favor laws that would change the way campaigns are financed so that people who are not wealthy have a better chance to become president.

Political diversity

As of the 2004 elections, five parties besides the Republicans and Democrats regularly run candidates for presidential and congressional elections, including the Constitution, Green, Libertarian, Natural Law, and Reform parties. There are also at least five more parties working to gain nationwide support, including the Communist, Labor, New, Socialist, and Workers World parties. There are millions of Americans who do not belong to a specific political party, and millions of Americans do not vote in presidential elections. So while the Democratic and Republican parties dominate American politics, they do not represent all Americans.

The Democratic and Republican parties, however, are the largest political parties in America as of 2005. This means that most elected government officials, including those in Congress and the state legislatures, come from these parties. Legislatures have passed election and ballot access laws that make it harder for candidates from the so-called third parties to get elected. (For example, Democrats and Republicans generally need to collect far fewer signatures from party members to get onto primary ballots than third-party members need to collect to get on general election ballots.) Democrats and Republicans regularly exclude third parties from candidate debates, making it harder for third-party candidates to get their messages to the voters and to receive serious consideration on election day. One notable recent exception was Texas businessman H. Ross Perot, who was included in the 1992 presidential debates with his opponents, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton and President George Bush; Perot fared better than any other third-party candidate in history, receiving 18.9 percent of the popular vote.

Direct popular elections and instant runoff voting

The electoral system makes it possible for a presidential candidate to lose the popular vote but win the presidency. This has happened four times in history. John Quincy Adams (1767–1848; served 1825–29), Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81), Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901; served 1889–93), and George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) won their presidential elections even though they received fewer popular votes than their nearest competitors. (For Bush, this was the case in the 2000 election, but not in 2004.)

President Bush's victory in the election of 2000 revived national interest in direct popular election of the president. Under a system of direct popular election, the person who receives the most votes wins the election. Russia, for instance, elects its president through direct popular elections. People in favor of direct popular elections say it is a purer test of who the country wants at the helm. Some people against direct popular election say it would harm small states, which have a stronger say in the election under the current electoral system.

Other people against direct popular elections know it could eventually hurt the two major parties because it could lead to Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). Under IRV systems, voters rank all of the candidates in order of preference. The ballots are then counted using a system that ensures that the person who wins the election ultimately receives a simple majority of votes. IRV voting would give voters more choices in elections, making it possible for a third-party candidate to win an election. IRV voting also would prevent candidates who lose the popular vote from becoming president of the United States.

For More Information


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Congressional Quarterly Inc. Powers of the Presidency. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1997.

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Kelly, Alfred H., and Winfred A. Harbison. The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1976.

Kurland, Philip B., and Ralph Lerner. The Founders' Constitution. 5 vols. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987.

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Milkis, Sidney M., and Michael Nelson. The American Presidency: Origins & Development. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1999.

Nelson, Michael, ed. The Evolving Presidency. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1999.

Rozell, Mark J. Executive Privilege. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

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Sollenberger, Mitchel A. "Congressional Overrides of Presidential Vetoes." CRS Report for Congress, April 7, 2004. United States House of Representatives. (accessed on February 14, 2005).

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