In the summer of 1787, when the Framers were creating a government for this new country, they argued a lot about how strong a president they wanted—someone with as much power as a king or someone who would be checked by the people’s representatives in Congress? At the time, Great Britain had a hereditary monarchy with a king who was an autocrat. It was largely because of King George III’s unreasonable demands that the colonists had fought for independence. So, no one wanted a chief executive like him. Nevertheless, what the Framers came up with, in part, is this:
The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. (Article II, Section 1)
Some of the people who criticized this part of the Constitution in 1787 accused the Framers of creating a system like Britain’s. The only difference would be that the head would be elected rather than born to the job.
We don’t have a king, of course. But politicians and citizens alike have taken this section to mean that whoever wins the White House takes control of the entire executive branch of the federal government. Presidents get to appoint everyone in that branch, including—with approval from the Senate—members of the cabinet. These secretaries oversee agencies, such as the Department of Education or the Environmental Protection Agency, and report and give advice to the president. If the president is dissatisfied with the job one of the appointees is doing, she or he can fire that person. Lawyers call this authority to hire and fire the “unitary executive.”
On March 13, 2018, President Trump tweeted that he was firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had held the office for only thirteen months. Many people wonder if the next appointee to go will be the top law-enforcement officer, Attorney General (AG) Jeff Sessions, who leads the Department of Justice.
As the boss of the White House, the president can also choose and replace the people who work there, from the travel agents to the press secretary. During his first year in office, President Trump has let go about a dozen staffers; several dozen others have resigned.
Each of the chapters in Fault Lines in the Constitution that discusses an issue in the document shows how the constitutions of various states and other countries do things differently from—and, often, better than—we do in the US Constitution. So, how does the power of our presidency compare with that given to the heads of another country and to the governors of some states?
Today, Britain has a parliamentary system in which the prime minister (PM) is elected, and the monarch has practically no political power. In a parliamentary system, if no political party wins a majority in the election, the parties have to negotiate with each other to form a government. As a result, the PM might be forced to accept a department head she disagrees with and would rather not appoint—but cannot fire. Furthermore, party members can vote a British PM out of office if they lose confidence in their leader. The cabinet cannot remove the president in the same way, since our executive is elected for a fixed term of four years.
Thanks to Article II of the Constitution, the president can also get away with a lot more than most governors can. In Texas, for instance, the governor appoints almost no department heads. The attorney general, the comptroller, the land commissioner, and members of the state board of education, among many other officials, are elected. California, too, elects its AG and superintendents of education and insurance, among other officials.
In fact, most states elect their attorneys general. (One of the few exceptions is New Jersey, whose governor appoints but cannot fire the AG.) Because of this arrangement, the governor and attorney general in a state can belong to different political parties. This would rarely happen at the national level. (President Barack Obama, a Democrat, chose three Republicans for his first cabinet but his AG was a Democrat.)
Which arrangement do you think is better? A very strong executive, like our presidency? Or, one where power is spread around, as in most states and many other countries?
There are also countries, like Portugal, where the only power that the president has is to ask the candidate with the highest share of votes to form a government (which may or may not be a coalition government depending on whether the prime minister’s party has an absolute majority) and to dismiss the prime minister and call early elections. In that sense, the president has a similar role to that of the prime minister’s party in the UK. Otherwise, the president is a ceremonial position. Things do get interesting, though, when the elected president comes from a different party than the prime minister, which often happens because the two elections don’t take place at the same time.
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This is fascinating. I should have checked with you before I wrote the blog. I’ll be sure to share this with Sandy, too. It’s true that we didn’t talk about systems with both a president and a PM. Israel is another one.
I will never forget sitting on my couch in Canada watching the news report – “Today, the PM dissolved the government.” What????? But – because the government was gridlocked, the government was dissolved and every federal official ran for office again 8 weeks later. (Yes – the federal election cycle was 8 weeks long). I have to say – it was brilliant! The government was functioning again!
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Brenda, we envy you!