What Are the Most Important Factors That Contributed to the Rise of Presidential Power in the Modern American Government?
Constitutional provisions limited the early presidency, although the personalities of the first three — George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson — shaped it into a more influential position by the early 1800s. However, throughout the 1800s until the 1930s, Congress was the dominant branch of the national government. Then, throughout the rest of the 20th Century, the balance of power shifted dramatically, so that the executive branch currently has at least equal power to the legislative branch. How did this shift happen?
Over the course of the nineteenth century, other presidents added new weapons to the office's arsenal of powers. Andrew Jackson was the first to make extensive use of the veto and Abraham Lincoln read broadly into his wartime powers as commander-in-chief. But with Teddy Roosevelt and the arrival of a new, more complex century, the office's power grew at an even faster clip. Part of this growth in the presidency might be classified as organic—the inevitable result of the historical process. As the nation's economy grew, the government needed to assume a larger regulatory role. As the world shrank, enabling the United States to increase its international presence, the federal government needed to expand its diplomatic presence. And many of the new demands placed on government could not be easily met by Congress. Take foreign policy, for example. Congress may be well suited to the task of drafting educational reform legislation—but 535 people cannot negotiate treaties or efficiently respond to a national security crisis. And even complicated domestic legislation can be difficult for Congress to manage. When confronting the scientific complexities of environmental supervision or the financial intricacies of banking regulation, Congress's 535 members rarely manage to agree on more than the broad outlines of a legislative proposal. Consequently, many of the details are left for the president to work out after he is handed the bill for implementation.
More recently, presidents have offered their own interpretation of legislation as they sign it via signing statements (discussed later in this chapter) directed to the bureaucratic entity charged with implementation. In the realm of foreign policy, Congress permitted the widespread use of executive agreements to formalize international relations, so long as important matters still came through the Senate in the form of treaties (Charles Stewart. 1989). Recent presidents have continued to rely upon an ever more expansive definition of war powers to act unilaterally at home and abroad. Finally, presidents, often with Congress’s blessing through the formal delegation of authority, have taken the lead in framing budgets, negotiating budget compromises, and at times impounding funds in an effort to prevail in matters of policy.
The Emancipation Proclamation also allowed for the enrollment of freed slaves into the United States military. During the war nearly 200,000 blacks, most of them ex-slaves, joined the Union Army. Their contributions gave the North additional manpower that was significant in winning the war.
Mark J. Rozel. 1999. "’The Law': Executive Privilege: Definition and Standards of Application," Presidential Studies Quarterly 29, No. 4: 918–30.
Glen S. Krutz and Jeffrey S. Peake. 2009. Treaty Politics and the Rise of Executive Agreements: International Commitments in a System of Shared Powers. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Charles Stewart. 1989. Budget Reform Politics: The Design of the Appropriations Process in the House of Representatives, 1865-1921. New York: Cambridge University Press.