Imagine that George Washington or John Adams had announced an executive department initiative called “We Can’t Wait.” We can’t wait for Congress to take action, so the president will just do what needs to be done. The founding generation agreed that they needed a stronger executive than they had at first thought, but they explicitly limited the president’s powers. Article II of the Constitution vests the executive power in the president. It makes the president commander in chief, and provides for the making of treaties and the appointment of ambassadors, judges and officers with the advice and consent of the Senate. But when it comes to making laws, the president only has the power to approve or veto laws duly enacted by Congress. He can twist arms and lobby for bills he would like to see enacted, but he has no power to make laws.
Yet candidates for the presidency and the president himself routinely say they will pass this law and repeal that law. The very smart people in the press never challenge them on these clearly erroneous statements. Is it just harmless hyperbole? Or does it lull Americans into believing that their president actually has the powers he claims to possess?
Maybe what the whole country needs is a refresher course in the rule of law and constitutional government. The founders of this great nation did us the favor of overthrowing an imperial monarch. If we keep talking like we have an imperial president, we may just find ourselves with one.
Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.