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Presidential Expansion

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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At the end of the 19th century, the Presidency conformed to the designs and intentions of the Founders. Congress assumed a central role in policy. The Speaker of the House rivaled the president in terms of power.

At the beginning of the 20th century, structural changes occurred. The U.S. economy expanded in ways that the framers could not have intended. The industrial economy led to concentration of economic power, as opposed to the wide distribution of power in rural economies.

Massive concentrations of economic power -- for example, steel and railroad magnates -- led to people demanding more government intervention in the economy. As the government's role in the economy grew, the president accordingly amassed more sovereignty.

The Modern Presidency

The Modern Presidency was led by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While people originally advocated minimal government involvement in the economy, the Great Depression of the 1930's altered people's views. The federal government became very activist and bureaucracy -- government managed by bureaus -- expanded.

FDR proposed the creation of numerous agencies designed to alleviate suffering. These bureaucratic agencies were known as "Alphabet Soup" agencies. The establishment of each agency directed more power towards the president, as the presidency was held accountable for the agencies.

Congress was directly involved in this growth of the executive branch. There was no encroachment on the presidency, as the founders feared.

The Imperial Presidency

The Imperial Presidency was led by Richard Nixon. Nixon embraced a new conception of the presidency. According to Nixon, the executive branch was untouchable by Congress and passed and enforced laws independently. For example, The Huston Plan (1970) was the executive branch's operation to spy on opposers of the Vietnam War. However, the plan was aborted before implementation.

After Nixon's presidency, he held an interview with Frost that exemplified his view of the presidency:

FROSTSo what in a sense, you're saying is that there are certain situations, and the Huston Plan….was one of them, where the president can decide that it's in the best interests of the nation…and do something illegal.
NIXONWell, when the president does it that means that it is not illegal.
FROSTBy definition.

Congress Unsuccessfully Fought For Power

The War Powers Resolution required the president to notify Congress (at least some members) within 48 hours of sending troops into armed combat. Section 2(c) specified withdrawal of troops within 60 days unless Congress:

  1. declared war or authorized continued operations;

  2. extended the 60 day period by law;

  3. was physically unable to meet.

Presidents from both parties consistently argue that the provisions in Section 2(c) are unconstitutional. Both Democrat and Republican Presidents have argued that the War Powers Resolution infringes the presidency's constitutional Article II powers and is thus not binding.