Friday, April 20, 2007

The U.S. presidency as quasi-monarchy

How many times during the current scandal over the U.S. Attorneys and presidential powers have we heard the phrase “serve at the pleasure of the president” or in reference to the growing number of international conflicts we seem to find ourselves in we hear the President referred to as the “commander in chief”? These are phrases and terms better suited for a monarchy than a republic.

There is so much that is out-of-whack structurally with our system of government and how we put that government in power that should be of concern to those believe in a democratic system of self rule. A significant portion of the problems pertains to executive power in the possession of one person: the President. It is hard to know where to begin on the long road to democratic reform

Sandford Levison has a novel idea that may be a tiny baby step but it certainly is a tiny baby step in the right direction. As background it is important to point out the administration that governs the country consists of thousands of people but we elect only one – the President. (Well, actually, because of the Electoral College we really don’t elect the President but we’ll save that issue for another post at a later date.) Those responsible for overseeing the day-to-day work of the government and reporting directly to the President are his cabinet. Since the makeup of the President’s cabinet reflect a lot of how the administration will govern why not inform voters in advance of the election of who the candidate intends to select as his (or her) cabinet if elected?

Here is Levison’s proposal:

There are many things that are objectionable about our current presidentialist system, but one of its most important defects is the way we in effect treat a presidential candidate as a quasi-monarch. There is no serious discussion during a campaign about who, specifically, will be asked to fill such important Cabinet positions as secretary of State, secretary of Defense, secretary of the Treasury, and attorney general. (This is obviously not meant to be an exhaustive list of important positions about which we need information in order to cast an informed vote.) The lucky winner gets de facto carte blanche, save for truly unusual exceptions like Ronald Reagan's choice of John Tower to be secretary of Defense, to pick whomever he wishes. John Kennedy notably picked for his secretary of State someone he had never met, perhaps because, like many presidents, he thought he could make his own foreign policy through charm and "back-channel" contacts. Dean Rusk may have had many sterling qualities, but his judgment as secretary of State was not one of them. Senate confirmation hearings are perfunctory, especially if the Senate is controlled by the president's own party. The tradition is that, like a monarch, the president is entitled to pick his (or, perhaps in 2009, her) palace staff, without serious oversight with regard to the process of selection. Does a president want his brother (Robert Kennedy) or campaign manager (John Mitchell) to serve as attorney general? Sure, why not? Is it conceivable, I wonder, that either JFK or Nixon would have dared suggest such questionable (if not outright illegitimate) appointments during the campaign itself? (That RFK staffed the DOJ with many truly great appointees was lucky for the country, but it does not legitimize his own appointment.)

It would be good not only for the country to have some genuine idea what an actual administration might look like. It would also be good for the candidate, who
would not have to spend the "transition" making dozens of choices. Instead, the president- to-be might actually use the time more valuably to become ever more knowledgeable about the problems that he/she will shortly be dealing with. Or, in the alternative, if candidates actually had to construct cabinets during the run-up to the election, then perhaps we could also eliminate another pernicious feature of our present system, which is the 10-week hiatus between election and inauguration, during which a discredited and defeated incumbent may have all sorts of opportunities to make mischief for his successor. (The Brits install their new PMs the day after the election, I believe, something made possible by the fact that there is always a "shadow government" in waiting.)

So maybe it is time to press the candidates. Who is Obama’s shadow government in waiting? Clinton? Romney? Etc. These are some of the most important decisions the President-elect will make. Don’t we the voters have a right to know this before we cast our ballots? Or are we electing a monarch?

1 comment:

Z said...

Well, I don't know. There are way too many "what-ifs" in my opinion. What if the person the candidate intended to hold a position declines, backs out, dies, or fails to be confirmed by the Senate? What if something happens to the person while in office (e.g. dies, resigns, looses his marbles, etc.)? The president elect will have to choose someone else, obviously. But, the odds of allegations of corruption just to please the electorate I would imagine are pretty high.

"You just said so and so was going to be secretary of whatever just to get elected, now that you are elected, you want to install a crony." And, with the state of government corruption these days, I wouldn't put it past them to do that. So again, I don't know about this idea myself.