In the last five articles, we covered the legislative branch, including the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the law-making process. We also covered the amendment process whereby the constitution itself can be changed.
Today, let’s examine the executive branch. The executive branch and the President of the United States are one and the same. In him, all executive power of the federal government is vested.
Some people think that our selection process is backwards and antiquated. On the contrary, it is designed to prevent democracy (mob rule) from overrunning the presidency.
What it is we look for in a president? Someone who is a leader. Someone who can unify the country. Someone who can represent us internationally. Someone who can take decisive action. Someone who is responsible and knows how to hold others accountable.
A president must be 35 years old, a natural born citizen, and lived for 14 years in the United States. A president serves a four-year term and can be re-elected only once.
A president is not chosen by the people. The constitution is specific. The president is chosen by the Electoral College. Each state legislature (not the people) sends as many electors to the Electoral College as they have senators and representatives. This means, at a minimum, states have 3 electors.
Nowadays, all the states have laws that allow the people to choose who the electors will be. Some states go all-in for the winner, while others partition the votes based on district or some other system. Regardless, it is, constitutionally, the state legislatures that choose the electors, not the people.
At the Electoral College, the electors must choose a president and vice-president. In the early days, the 1st place winner was the president, and the 2nd place winner was the vice-president. Nowadays, they choose the two positions on separate ballots, with the condition that the president and vice-president not be from the same state.
If the Electoral College cannot decide who should be president or vice-president, the constitution dictates that the selection is thrown to the House of Representatives. There, they vote on the top three in a very specific way. Each state’s representatives meet independently. A two-thirds vote is necessary to represent the state. And each state gets one vote. If the House of Representatives cannot choose, then the sitting vice-president becomes president.
Why in the world do we have this strange system for choosing the president? Why not just have a national vote?
Well, for starters, each state has a different way of counting votes! This, already, makes one vote in one state unequal to another. If one state had more relaxed rules for who is allowed to vote than another, they would have disproportionate power in selecting the president.
In addition, the Founding Fathers didn’t want the most populous states to dictate to the rest of the country the way it was going to be. Already they had a distinct advantage in the House of Representatives. Carrying that over to the presidency would give 2 parts of the federal government to the most populous states. This would leave the smaller states to a minority status, being bullied about by the larger states.
But most importantly, the selection of the president was going to be the most contentious part of the federal appointment process. The president is, after all, one step away from being a king. There would always be a considerable focus on who was going to be the next president, and so the Founding Fathers wanted that debate to happen everywhere and involve everyone.
What exactly does the president do?
He swears: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
He is Commander-in-Chief. That means, all military decisions go up to him. He also commissions officers in the military.
He can grant reprieves or pardons, except for impeachment trials.
He can sign treaties. The treaties aren’t valid until ratified by 2/3rds of the Senate. (Note the House has no say.)
He appoints people to fill in executive and judicial vacancies, with the consent of the senate. If the senate doesn’t cooperate, he can wait until they are out of session and do a “recess appointment”, valid for one session without the consent of the senate.
He addresses congress with the “State of the Union.” He can tell them what he thinks is important for them to do. This provision makes it clear that the president doesn’t serve the congress.
He can call congress into session, or if they cannot agree to adjournment, adjourn them. This is an important power to keep congress in order.
He also wields the veto pen. He can either sign bills approved by both the House and the Senate into law, or veto them. If vetoed, 2/3rds of congress is needed to override the veto.
The president, as I said, is one step from being king. His limited powers are really quite awesome. Some have compared past presidents to dictators. This really isn’t so, since presidents can’t write laws while dictators can. Presidents only have the power to enforce the law.
Over the years, laws and traditions have built up surrounding those powers. For instance, since only congress can declare war, he isn’t allowed to muster the army or take any military action until the congress tells him to. But the “War Powers Act” grants the president power to take limited military action for a limited amount of time as needed. Congress will, of course, review his actions and decide whether to continue or to stop.
The Posse Comitatus Act says that the military cannot be used within the country for law enforcement except as called upon by congress. The president cannot send federal troops into a disaster area without the governor inviting the troops in an the troops reporting to the governor. The only area that the president is allowed to use federal troops is to quell a rebellion when the states can not handle it on their own.
The budget drives what the president can do. If congress doesn’t write a budget, the president cannot raise a dime or spend a dime. This is an important limitation on the powers of the president. Congress is usually willing to sign a blank check for military actions, and they get to investigate the actions and make demands of the president. This is an unwritten but understood agreement.
Presidents over the years have issued “executive orders.” These may sound like laws, but really aren’t. They are instructions to his administration and officials he oversees in how to interpret the constitution and the laws as they are written. This is simply the president exercising his power and acting upon his interpretation of the constitution the same way congress and the courts act on their interpretation of the constitution.
Presidents have also, traditionally, added “signing statements” as they sign bills. These often note what parts of the law they disagree with (although they are powerless to change it) or what parts of the law they do not intend to enforce. They may even note how they will put the law into effect with the signing statement.
The president, at least a good president, will spend the bulk of his time working with foreign nations and negotiating treaties. Senators seem to detest the fact that the is allowed to spend so much time hobnobbing with foreign dignitaries. Their only recourse is to ratify or reject the treaties he signs and approve the ambassadors he appoints. A law was written that dictates that only the president is allowed to speak on behalf of the country, so senators and representatives calling on officials from another government have to check with the president about what they are allowed to say and do.
In practice, we should elect presidents who are good military leaders and good executives and ambassadors. We should elect them to be our international face and handle our relation with other countries. We should elect representatives and senators who will focus their time on taxes and spending and legislation of domestic affairs. I think this is why, over the years, presidents have been disproportionately republican. The people have recognized republicans as better able to represent our country, lead us in wars, and handle foreign relations than the democrats.
There is some talk of abandoning the Electoral College used to elect the president. If anything, I would encourage people to consider returning the power to elect the president to the state legislatures and remove it from the people. Popular presidents do not make good presidents. We can see based on what we’ve already experienced with President Obama that this is true.