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Expansion of presidential power

Presidential power has expanded over time, often in response to unforeseen circumstances. Examples include Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase and Franklin D. Roosevelt's creation of various agencies during the Great Depression. Checks on this power include the 22nd Amendment and the War Powers Act. The debate over executive power and secrecy continues today.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] What we're going to talk about in this video is the expansion of presidential power. We've already seen that the Constitution talks about the different powers that a president would have. But as we've gone forward in history, the Constitution hasn't imagined every circumstance that the president might face, and so there have been times when the presidents have used powers that aren't explicitly given in the Constitution. For example, as early as 1803, you have the Louisiana Purchase, where you have Thomas Jefferson buying land from Napoleon's France. It does not say explicitly anywhere in the Constitution that presidents are allowed to buy land from foreign countries. You fast-forward a good bit to the Great Depression. You have Franklin Delano Roosevelt who serves four terms in office, four terms in office, and also starts creating all of these various agencies in order to help stimulate the economy, so creates agencies. And many of the things that he did were not explicitly listed as powers of the president. And as you can imagine, as any member of the government, especially the president, starts taking on powers that aren't explicitly listed, it make make other people a little bit afraid. And so in reaction to some of this, there have been actions taken. For example, because FDR had his four terms, you have the 22nd Amendment. And the 22nd Amendment says that no one can be elected to the office of the president more than two times, and no one can serve more than 10 years in office. The 10 years would become a problem if you can take on office in the second half of someone else's administration and then you get elected twice. And so the 22nd Amendment was really a check on this type of expansion of presidential power. Later on, you have things like the War Powers Act. Let me write that, War Powers Act, which is from 1973, and this is at the end of the Vietnam War. Congress has been concerned. How did we get embroiled in the war, a war, that in the early days, did not have any type of official authorization from Congress, but American troops were put on the ground in a foreign country. And so the War Powers Act in 1973 says that a president has to get congressional buy-in within 60 days of committing American troops. But to help us understand this issue, let's go all the way back to the Federalist Papers. Remember, the Federalist Papers were written in an attempt to get the Constitution ratified. And for the sake of this video, we're going to focus on Federalist number 70, written by Alexander Hamilton. In Federalist number 70, Alexander Hamilton makes the case why you need to have a single individual who has significant power at the head of the Executive Branch. And you can imagine this would have made some people wary because the United States had just gotten independence from George III, a king, and so some people might have been wary about kings, and might have wanted, maybe not one person in charge, or maybe a committee in charge. But this is what Hamilton wrote. Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy... A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must, in practice, a bad government... That unity is conducive to energy will not be disputed. Decision, activity, secrecy, and despatch will generally characterize the proceedings of one man in a much more eminent degree than the proceedings of any greater number, and in proportion as the number is increased, that qualities will be diminished... So he's making the argument for an energetic executive, and he's saying that, "Look, that power needs to be one person." Otherwise, it's going be diluted amongst many, and the more people you have at the top of the executive, then these qualities of energy, of decisiveness, are going to be diminished. And it's interesting. He also talks about secrecy, which you don't always view as a positive, but maybe the argument is if you really need to execute well, you don't have to tell everyone what you're doing, especially if you're trying to conduct a war and you don't want national secrets to get out. The plurality of the Executive tends to deprive the people of the two greatest securities they can have for the faithful exercise of any delegated power. So here he's further building the case that hey, if you have many people in the executive, at the head of the executive, it's going to deprive the people of two great securities. First, the restraints of public opinion, which lose their efficacy, as well on account of the division of the censure attendant on bad measures among a number, as on account of the uncertainty on whom it ought to fall. So he's saying the restraints of public opinion don't work as well if there's many people at the top. If many people are making these executive decisions, then they don't know who to hold accountable. They don't know who to blame. And secondly, the opportunity of discovering with facility and clearness the misconduct of the persons they trust, in order either to their removal from office or to their actual punishment in cases which admit of it... So once again, they're saying if it's one person leading the executive and they do something bad, you can punish them. You can remove them from office. But if it's many people, who do you blame? It might not be easy to hold them accountable. But then if we fast-forward to 1973, think about the situation that the country was in. We were at the end of the Vietnam War. President Nixon was going through the Watergate investigations, and you have the author Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writes The Imperial presidency. And it says right over here, "The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian traces the escalation "of Presidential power and considers what Congress "and the people can do about it." And here is an excerpt of what he wrote. Secrecy seemed to promise government three inestimable advantages: the power to withhold, the power to leak and the power to lie... So it's clear that Arthur Schlesinger is not as big of a fan as secrecy as Alexander Hamilton was. The power to withhold held out the hope of denying the public the knowledge that would make possible an independent judgment on executive policy. The mystique of inside information -- "if you only knew "what we know" -- was a most effective way to defend the national security monopoly and prevent democratic control of foreign policy... So he's saying, look, if you allow people to just not tell you things, they'll just say, hey, if you only knew what we knew, you would do what we're doing, but we can't tell you what we know, so you just have to trust us. The power to leak meant the power to tell the people what it served the government's purpose that they should know... So once again, they can hold secret, and say, "Hey, trust us. We're doing what's the right thing," but then they could selectively leak so that only certain information gets out that once again, could be in the interest of those in power. The power to withhold and the power to leak lead inexorably to the power to lie. The secrecy system instilled in the executive branch the idea that foreign policy was no one's business save its own, and the uncontrolled secrecy made it easy for lying to become routine. It was in this spirit that Eisenhower concealed the CIA operations it was mounting against governments around the world. It was in this spirit that the Kennedy administration stealthily sent the Cuban brigade to the Bay of Pigs, and stealthily enlarged American involvement in Vietnam. It was in this spirit that the Johnson administration Americanized the Vietnam War, misrepresenting one episode after another to Congress and the people-- Tonkin Gulf, which was the resolution based on a perceived attack on an American ship, which was later judged to be just an explosion, the first American ground force commitment, the bombing of North Vietnam, My Lai and the rest. And the My Lai Massacre is a famous massacre that eventually got out and it showed a massacre of civilians in Vietnam. But I'll let you decide. And it doesn't have to be the case that Alexander Hamilton was right 100% or that Arthus Schlesinger is right 100%. It could be the case that, well, for the most part, it is important for an executive to have some degree of secrecy. Even some of the things that Arthur Schlesinger has talked about, where we're talking about the Bay of Pigs or we're talking about the CIA operations, remember, this was during the Cold War. You had the Soviet Union out there with all of its spies. If it knew what was going on, it might be able to undermine American actions. So some degree of secrecy absolutely was necessary, but on the other hand, maybe there is a point that sometimes that secrecy does allow those in power to do things that would make the general public very upset about their actions.