Editors’ note: This article is part of “Rethinking Our Democracy,” a series on institutional reforms to Congress and the presidency, which is a joint initiative by the Center for Effective Government at the University of Chicago and Protect Democracy. All other articles within this series can be found here.
Political scientist Scott James has observed that the history of American government is one of tension between the promise and the fear of presidential power. The promise is that presidents can provide the leadership needed for effective governmental action. The fear is that, if they are given (or take) too much power, they threaten to become autocrats. Since its founding, the nation has struggled to find the right balance between the promise and the fear to sustain a government that is both effective and democratic.
The Constitution’s framers designed a system with a separation of powers and weak presidency that rendered governmental action difficult. This architecture may have been fine for a primitive society of 4 million people. But as we show in our recent book, “Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy,” this framework has been challenged by complex problems of modernization. Attempts to build a government capable of dealing with these problems relied heavily on the presidency, whose power grew considerably over the decades — notably via reforms during the Progressive Era and the New Deal that yielded a presidentially led administrative state.
For much of American history, therefore, the promise outweighed the fear in political practice and debate. But Vietnam and the Nixon presidency led to congressional reforms to constrain and counterbalance presidential power, including the War Powers Resolution, the Budget and Impoundment Control Act and the Ethics in Government Act. With the populist presidency of Donald Trump, who has pushed the bounds of legality and violated long-standing democratic norms, fear of presidential power has soared to unprecedented heights. In response, members of Congress have proposed changes that are circulating on Capitol Hill. These include:
- The Article One Act, which would limit the president’s ability to declare national emergencies and evade the rule of law.
- The Security from Political Interference in Justice Act, which would improve transparency over, and accountability for, White House meddling in the Justice Department.
- The For the People Act, which would address conflicts of interest by requiring presidential candidates to submit 10 years of tax returns.
- The Abuse of the Pardon Prevention Act, which would strengthen Congress’s oversight of presidential pardons that involve the president himself or a family member.
Our book explains the logic behind such reforms and their expansion. We also highlight others, such as dramatically reducing the number of presidential appointments to produce a bureaucracy run by professionals rather than political loyalists and insulating national intelligence agencies from direct presidential control.
If we fixate on Trump and the fear of presidential power, however, we risk losing sight of the trade-offs that James identified. Democracy will survive only as long as the public’s needs are met by a government capable of effective action. Our book explains how government’s inability to deal adequately with the socioeconomic disruptions of recent decades — globalization, automation, immigration — fomented economic despair and cultural anxiety among millions of Americans, fueling the anti-system populist rage that put Trump in the White House. He — and the populist threat to democracy — are a product of ineffective government. Better government can defuse this threat.
What would this involve? Attention should focus on the legislative process, which lies at the core of government and is clearly broken. With entrepreneurial legislators tied to their own states and districts, lawmaking is mired in special-interest politics, political infighting and gridlock. On all sorts of issues — a nonfunctioning immigration system, skyrocketing debt, unsustainable entitlement programs, a warming climate — legislators can’t do anything at all. Even when Congress does act, its laws are not intellectually coherent programs aimed at solving problems so much as cobbled-together patchworks intended to placate organized interests and attract votes.
Presidents are different. Far more than legislators — and Trump aside — they pay attention to the interests of the nation as a whole. Obsessed with their legacies, they look to build comprehensive programs and policies that solve national problems and secure their places in history.
How might presidents refocus politics on comprehensive solutions to national problems? Here is an instructive example from the past. Under the 1974 Trade Act and its reauthorizations, presidents have been granted the power to introduce trade agreements to Congress, which must then vote up or down on a majority basis within a fixed period of time in the House and Senate. Congress explicitly gave this fast-track authority to the president to temper the influence of powerful organized interests demanding favors and exemptions. The result, economists say, has been a more efficient process that privileges national interests and promotes international trade.
This experience suggests that a “universal fast-track” system, under which all legislation would get the same treatment as trade agreements, might move U.S. policy toward a more effective focus on shared national problems. Under universal fast-track, presidentially crafted bills would be presented to Congress under the same rules as fast-tracked trade negotiations. Legislators would be free to vote no, of course, and to design and pass their own legislation (which the president could veto). But they would be required to vote on the president’s bills and do it quickly.
If the United States wants to safeguard democratic principles and practices, it will need reforms that address the fear of presidential power by imposing new constraints on what presidents can do. Constraints alone, however, won’t build a more effective government. Our separation-of-powers system is inherently unwieldy. Addressing today’s challenges requires the kind of coherent, problem-solving leadership that presidents can offer. That is their promise. And that is why presidential leadership, responsibly leveraged, enables American democracy to work, win public support and survive.
William Howell (@ProfWillHowell) is the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago, director of the Center for Effective Government, and co-host of the Not Another Politics Podcast at the Harris School of Public Policy.
Terry Moe is the William Bennett Munro Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Together, they are the authors of “Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy” (University of Chicago Press, 2020).