Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Imperial Presidency

The WP figures out what we've already realized; although a lot of us, including myself, reflexively tend to think about Germany 1933 when the Bushies get up to something inane, we're really much closer to the Rome of Octavian Caesar:

The transformation started in the House in the 1990s and intensified with Bush's 2000 election. The result has been a stronger president working with a compliant and streamlined Congress to push the country, and the courts, in a more conservative direction, according to historians, government scholars, and current and former federal officials.

Some of the changes, such as a more powerful executive branch, less powerful rank-and-file members of Congress and more pro-Republican courts, are likely to outlast the current president and GOP majority, they say. The Republican bid to ban the filibustering of judges made it easier for Bush to appoint conservatives to the Supreme Court and holds open the threat of future attempts to erode the most powerful tool available to the minority party in Congress.

"Every president grabs for more power. What's different it seems to me is the acquiescence of Congress," said former representative Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), a government scholar at the Aspen Institute.

Octavian created the Roman Empire by maintaining the form of the Republic. There was still a senate, still consuls. SPQR was still chiseled on every monument. The fact that the system was completely under his control was deferentially not mentioned. Gibbon:

...the system of the Imperial government as it was constituted by Augustus and maintained by those princes who understood their own interest and that of the people, it may be defined an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth. The masters of the Roman world surrounded their throne with darkness, concealed their irresistable strength, and humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed."

The founders of our Republic read their Gibbon too and they well knew the dangers of a too-strong executive. So they created our system of government with checks and balances spread among three branches, the executive, legislature, and the judicial. In fact, the president defined in the Constitution is a fairly weak executive. Robert Dahl discusses this in How Democratic is the American Constitution?, which I highly recommend, by the way.

Bush created a top-down system in the White House much like the one his colleagues have in Congress. He has constructed what many scholars said amounts to a virtual oligarchy with Cheney, Karl Rove, Andrew H. Card Jr., Joshua Bolton, himself and only a few others setting policy, while he looks to Congress and the agencies mostly to promote and institute his policies.

"...whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed." Indeed.

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