While the Constitution offers what is often called a “balance of power” where the three branches of government- Executive, legislative and Judicial are supposed to be equal, the fact is that a powerful Congress can rule the Presidency while a powerful President, with the aid of his party’s leaders in Congress, can hold sway over the other branches of government.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” is certainly an example of a powerful President controlling the other branches of government, at least up to a point. The New Deal was the first time that the country felt the idea of “Father Knows Best”.
Government was not Orwell’s Big Brother. It was seen by many as a benevolent father, a guardian of the right to a stable life, with insurance for money in the bank and for assistance for those too elderly to work any longer. The New Deal was a political challenge, what had “not only to satisfy both the impulse for regulation and that against monopoly, but also to win the support of those who would participate in the recovery plan” (McElvaine 157). There are many historians who feel that the New Deal was more fair to Labor than it was to Capitalism, and that business was far more held in check, restricted through legislation, than the growing power of the Labor Unions (who would vote Democratic right into the 21st Century).
There is no doubt that the New Deal strengthened the Executive Branch of government, to the dismay of those who continued to uphold the “Balance of Power” written in the Constitution. One example that McElvaine lists is the National Recovery Administration which involved government in industry planning. “Laissez faire was over and the state would play a far more prominent role, but what that part would be, remained unclear” (158).
Crises always tend to bring either a bitter fight or meek acceptance by Congress of something the President wants. Until recently, 9/11 changed the entire balance of power. President Bush has kept insisting that the billions of dollars spent, the need to invade Iraq, the need for the Patriot Act which gives up certain civil liberties in the guise of “catching terrorists” are necessary. The key word in every instance was “terrorism.” Bush ran roughshod over Congress, with only a few demurrals, that all these acts and all these billions would keep 9/11 from ever happening again on American soil. Congress, instead of being “equal” became a doormat. Bush got the declaration of war, something reserved to Congress, by continuing to hammer at “terrorism” and “keeping America safe.”
The Judicial system has seemingly condoned everything. And anyone in opposition is either cursed as a “liberal” or “anti-patriotic. Now comes word of the massive use of telephone records of millions of Americans. Again, the Executive branch, under what it considers its “wartime powers” has made it possible without much opposition from either Congress or the public. The White House, in every case where opposition in Congress was mounting, chose to rally supporters around the flag. The dominant Executive branch, however, loses luster (as it is doing these days) when public approval ratings are low and Congress is concerned about upcoming elections. All of a sudden, even members of the President’s political party are having some reservations about such activities as Iraq, Immigration, Social Security, balancing the budget, and health care. It would seem that the powers of one branch versus another branch now requires moderation and compromise more than ever in recent history. Today with so many pressing and global issues facing our government, the art of compromise seems to be more dominant, as well as the idea that the Constitution was quite adamant about reserving all rights not specifically given to the government would be states’ rights. “The pluralist, pragmatist, and federalist character of American politics has compelled it to develop the art of the compromise and to achieve an equilibrium of conflicting powers in motion” (Lerner 405). The real power, of course, is supposed to rest with the people- the electorate. But given the low voter turnouts, sometimes the Congress and President you get is no more or less than uninterested Americans deserve.
Lerner, Max: America As a Civilization(1957) New York: Simon & Schuster
McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America 1929-1941New York: TIMES Books, (1984)