Democracy Dies in Darkness

In Theory | Opinion

Strong presidencies may threaten democracy. Luckily, we don't have one.

January 14, 2016 at 11:43 AM

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama at a luncheon for world leaders during the 70th session of the U.N. General Assembly in September. (Justin Lane/European Pressphoto Agency)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we're talking about executive power. Need a primer? Catch up here.

John Carey is Wentworth professor in the social sciences at Dartmouth College, where he teaches in the government department. More about his research here.

Can other countries teach us anything about whether the U.S. president is too strong? Many parliamentary democracies, like Germany and Israel, have figurehead presidents whose roles are mainly symbolic. But among the presidential democracies throughout Latin America and much of Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, most presidents wield more powers than our own.

Yet at the same time, few legislatures are as fettered as ours. Whether powers are balanced depends on both sides.

Starting with the presidency, the formal, constitutional powers of the U.S. president are on the low-to-moderate end of the spectrum. These include things like the veto, the ability to appoint (with Senate advice and consent) Cabinet members, to dismiss them at will, to nominate federal judges, and to make executive directives stick in the face of legislative opposition. When compared with other countries, our constrained presidential powers are reassuring. Regimes with more powerful presidencies and weaker legislatures, such as Russia or Ecuador, tend to be less democratic and less stable than ones with limited presidencies and stronger legislatures.

[Other perspectives: Obama can't rewrite the law]

Just as important as the overall scope of formal powers is their configuration. The U.S. president's key power over lawmaking the veto is reactive rather than proactive. This is reassuring as well. In countries where constitutions allow presidents to make law by decree, or where they provide other procedural authorities that allow presidents to dominate the legislative agenda, executives can impose sweeping policy changes on shaky political foundations. Proactive powers are associated with the suppression of civil liberties, such as press freedom. The experience of presidential systems around the world suggests that it is better to endow presidents with only the authority to hold up legislative action until they can assemble the broad coalitions that make policies more stable and effective over the long term.

But there are caveats to these observations.

First, we need to be cautious about drawing conclusions from patterns across countries, as presidencies are not randomly assigned to societies. (This is as unfortunate for a lot of countries as it is for social science.) Moscow in 1993 was a different place from Philadelphia in 1787, and the souped-up set of presidential powers built into Russia's constitution, handed down from Boris Yeltsin then to Vladimir Putin today, far surpasses those George Washington bequeathed to John Adams. Even if countries with dominant presidents tend to be dubious democracies, it's not always clear whether the presidency is the cause or a symptom of broader problems.

[Obama is maintaining the balance of powers, not overturning it]

Second, when we think about presidential strength and whether the balance of powers is as it should be, we're implicitly comparing the presidency with the other elected branch in every democratic system: the legislature. In most constitutions, a lot of fine print is devoted to whether the president or the legislature will be the main policy initiator.

The U.S. Constitution, much more than most, hands Congress that role. Yet it also puts obstacles in the way of Congress getting much done. Most democracies don't set up a two-chamber legislature in which both components have to act before any law is sent to the executive. And where there is a powerful second chamber, most are not as wildly malapportioned as the U.S. Senate, where representatives of just 18 percent of the nation's population can form a majority. Finally, Congress throws up additional barriers to action — the Senate's filibuster rules, for example, mean that supermajorities are required for most decisions.

Given how easy it is to stymie action, the U.S. Congress has a credible claim to being the most hamstrung legislature in the world. But this presents the question: Is there a level of legislative paralysis that has triggered a reversal of America's basic constitutional configuration? Are we at a point where, whatever the Constitution says, the presidency is the main source of policy initiatives?

We might be. But if we are, it's as much due to congressional dysfunction as it is to presidential aggrandizement. Compared with other presidencies around the world, ours is not particularly hyperactive. The next time critics fret about presidential usurpation close to home, check, for example, a Venezuelan news website for a list of the most recent decrees from President Nicolás Maduro.

In President Obama's final year, he may be searching for areas where he can tweak policy by fiat, whether via executive memorandum on guns or executive order on carbon emissions. But whatever initiative he exercises in taking "care that the laws be faithfully executed," the statutory boundaries of that discretion are quite narrow, in comparison with presidents elsewhere. And that's probably a good thing for American democracy.

Explore these other perspectives:

Adrian Vermeule: Imagine there's no Congress

Brianne Gorod: Obama is maintaining the balance of powers, not overturning it

Elizabeth Slattery: Obama can't rewrite the law

John Yoo: Obama is upending the role of the presidency

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