Saturday, September 19, 2009

Head of state and head of government (2)

Finally getting around to part 2 here

So 2 posts back I explained how I think that the President of the United States being both the head of state and the head of government often makes it difficult to criticize a president too strongly without seeming like you are criticizing the country as a whole. Is this a serious flaw in the U.S. Constitution? Looking at it from a historical perspective, why did the a country with an almost paranoid fear of strong central government create an office that gave its holder such great power and prestige?

The historical background, Part 1 – The Chief Executive and the separation of powers

When the United States was first established, during and immediately after the War for Independence/Revolutionary war, the dominant political view was that no one elected official should have too much power or prestige. The way most revolutionaries saw it, their troubles were caused by a king in Britain who was trying to gain real political power as well as a ceremonial position, and a Prime Minister allied with the king, who could push through almost any law he wanted as long as he had the support of a majority in Parliament. They also remembered how in most colonies before the revolution, the governor had been appointed in London, and often worked to thwart the actions of the colonial assemblies, who were elected by the eligible voters among the colonists themselves. All of this was to be avoided like the plague, so the new state governments stripped their governors of much of their power, and made the state legislature the dominant branch of the government. Many states also had the governor reelected every year so that an unpopular governor could be voted out relatively quickly. The national government of the United States, under the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation, went further. This government had no executive branch at all - no president, no prime minister, no national governor, or any equivalent. There was a President of the Congress, but in practice he didn't really function as an executive, and he didn't have much more authority than other citizens. In a sense, the early U.S. government was one of the few in history that didn't really have any true head of state or head of government at all. That was fine with most Americans.

There were some problems with this system, however. The job of an executive branch is basically to enforce the laws that are passed by the legislative branch, and without any executive, the Congress that ran the US couldn't really enforce any laws that it passed. It pretty much had to rely on the goodwill of the state government to get anything done. Again, this was fine with most Americans - most people identified more with their state than with the country as a whole, and it was common to refer to neighboring states as if they were foreign countries. (The different states had very different local cultures, to a much greater degree than today.) As time went on, however, it became clear that this decentralized system had some drawbacks. Trade with and investment from other countries suffered because the nation had no stable national currency, and it was difficult to collect debts in states whose governments were favorable to debtors. Other states, by contrast, had governments dominated by the interests of wealthy creditors, which passed very tough laws demanding quick payment of debts using scarce coins, and which allowed quick foreclosure on farms and homes when the debts were not paid. This became bad enough to provoke an armed uprising in Massachusetts by farmers determined not to have their farms taken. Meanwhile, fighting with the natives on the frontiers depended on local and state militias of widely varying quality, because there was no national army to speak of once the Continental army was disbanded after peace with Britain. Different states had disputes about land boundaries and navigation rights along rivers, and the national government could only serve as a mediator if both sides were willing to allow it to play this role.

By 1787, enough influential people were concerned about these issues that they persuaded 12 out of the 13 state governments to send representatives to a meeting in Philadelphia to discuss ways to strengthen the central government. Instead of just modifying the existing government, however, the majority of these delegates decided to create an entirely new one. This meeting was the Constitutional Convention, and the document that it created was the Constitution that has been the foundation of the federal government of the United States for just about 220 years. It was this document that gave the United States a powerful president, who would be both the head of government and the head of state. The executive and the entire branch of the government serving under him* would be in charge of enforcing the laws passed by Congress, and defending the country from foreign threats in the capacity of Commander in Chief of the national government’s armed forces. In his capacity as head of state, he would also be in charge of negotiating with foreign nations.

Why the sudden reversal, from a weak or nonexistent executive branch to a strong one? First of all, most of the delegates who designed what became the Constitution of the United States had become convinced that the lack of a strong executive was one of the major problems with the national government and the state governments. Nobody wanted a king, but in their minds the new country had gone too far in the other direction. As they saw it, any national government that was going to be effective needed a fairly strong executive branch. If that meant having the same person be the head of government and head of state, then so be it.

The designers of the constitution were still concerned about having an overly powerful president, however. You didn’t need to be a brilliant political theorist to recognize that putting too much power in one person’s hands was a very bad idea if you wanted a republican government that wouldn’t intrude on the rights of its own citizens. So, they set strict limits on the President. The President had no power to pass any laws or raise any revenue – that was entirely in the hands of Congress. The President was commander in chief of the military, but only Congress could declare war, and Congress was in complete charge of funding the military, so they could presumably refuse to fund any conflict that the President got involved in without their permission. The President and his Secretary of State were in charge of foreign relations, but all of their agreements had to be approved by the Senate, and any funding for them had to be approved by the House of Representatives as well. Finally, a President who was really overstepping the limits could be impeached (indicted) by the House of Representatives and tried by the Senate, which would act as a jury and could remove him from office by a 2/3 vote if they believed that he was guilty.

Apart from the specific restrictions on the Presidency, however, there was a more fundamental innovation that would end up setting the United States government apart from that of Great Britain and Britain’s other colonies that eventually became independent nations. The legislative branch (Congress) and the executive branch (the Presidency) were set up as completely separate branches of government, along with the Supreme Court, which formed a third judicial branch. Congress and the President would be chosen in two completely separate elections. (The President was, and is, chosen by an Electoral College, which would be elected by either the state legislatures or the people of the different states. The members of this Electoral College can NOT be members of Congress.) They would function independently of each other, performing different roles. It would be quite possible, even likely, for the President and the majority of members of Congress to disagree about important political issues. This was the basis for what became known as the “separation of powers” in the government of the United States.

This is completely different from how the British government, and still is, set up. In the British system, the executive branch of the government basically consists of the Prime Minister and a group of other ministers who are chosen by Parliament (more specifically, by the House of Commons, since the other part of Parliament, the House of Lords, is not elected and has had its power greatly reduced in the last 200 years). In practice, this means that the Prime Minister and other ministers usually come from the same political party and have similar political views to the majority of the Parliament. The Prime minister and other ministers are almost always members of Parliament (specifically the House of Commons) as well. The executive and legislative branches of the government in this system are very closely tied together. They function as two integrated parts of the same system, and when people vote for representatives in Parliament, they are effectively also voting for who they want as Prime Minister at the same time. There is no separation of powers between the two.

So, the Constitution that was proposed in 1787 combined the roles of head of state and head of government into a single chief executive, but at the same time it completely separated that executive from the national legislature, and surrounded the position with limitations. The men who signed the proposed Constitution apparently believed that these separations and restrictions were sufficient guarantee against the President becoming too powerful. Convincing the rest of the citizens of the United States was something else, however. Looking back, it seems inevitable that the Constitution of 1787 would be ratified, but in fact opposition to it was fierce. Each state saw its own battle between supporters and opponents of the new constitution, and one of the charges that the opponents brought against the document was that the office of President was much too powerful – as bad or worse as having a king. The supporters of the constitution gradually got the upper hand in most states, largely because they were simply better organized and more unified. The new Constitution was ratified by 1789, and the long history of the office of President of the United States began. Time would tell whether the theory of how the office was supposed to work matched the practice.

(To be continued later, again … this is taking much longer than I expected!)

*In the late 18th century it was taken for granted that like all elected officials and voters, the President would be a man. Fortunately, the original Constitution did not actually specify the male gender as part of the qualifications for President or any other federal office, so this did not need to be amended later.

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