As Independence Day comes once more to America, we find ourselves with an administration that is laboring to become a despotism. Not content with making laws by executive order, nor abashed by a long series of rebukes from the Supreme Court, the president has proclaimed his intention of acting in defiance of Congress for the specific reason that Congress has refused to enact the laws he wanted.
The president recently summoned the speaker of the House and asked him when Congress would do his bidding on the immigration issue. The speaker said he saw no way of passing legislation this year. Probably he didn’t bother to state the fundamental reason, which is that no one trusts the president to keep his word about any executive actions mandated by legislation in this field (or perhaps any other). The president then announced that he would therefore proceed without Congress. Network news reported on July 1 that Obama had ordered his cabinet ministers to journey throughout the country, finding “creative means” of doing what Congress does not want to be done, not just about immigration but about every policy he wishes to effect.
This is a textbook definition of despotism — the executive acting in despite of an elected legislature.
Presidents have often exceeded their authority, but no other president has proceeded systematically on the declared principle of doing what Congress refuses to authorize, because Congress has refused to authorize it. Even Lincoln, who invaded the Constitution more dramatically than any other president, never proceeded on that principle.
The only precedent that favors the current chief executive is that of President Hammond, who in pursuit of his economic program went before Congress and said:
You have wasted precious days and weeks and years in futile discussion. We need action, immediate and effective action. . . . I ask you, gentlemen, to declare a state of national emergency and to adjourn this Congress until normal conditions are restored. During the period of that adjournment, I shall assume full responsibility for the government.
When a congressman protested, asking, “If Congress refuses to adjourn?” Hammond replied, “I think, gentlemen, you forget that I am still the president of these United States, and as commander in chief of the army and navy, it is within the rights of the president to declare the country under martial law.” (For more about President Hammond, see Liberty, July 2010, pp. 21–29.)
The president has proclaimed his intention of acting in defiance of Congress for the specific reason that Congress has refused to enact the laws he wanted.
That happened in 1933, when MGM released a movie called Gabriel Over the White House. In the movie, President Hammond is the hero. In his own mind, President Obama is a hero too.
At July 4, thoughts customarily turn to heroes. Mine customarily turn to President Washington. Washington’s thoughts about a free government were somewhat different from those of President Hammond or President Obama. Take them as a gift of intelligent political thought, on this Independence Day:
It is important . . . that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield. (Farewell Address, 1796)