He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.
Article II, Section 3, Clause 1
He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Lord Acton, 1887
Mitch Ohnstad (reporter): “Why do you rob banks, Willie?”
Willie Sutton (bank robber): “Because that’s where the money is.”
In Worcester v. Georgia (1832) The United States Supreme Court vacated the conviction of Samuel Worcester, holding that the Georgia statute prohibiting non-Indians from being present on Indian lands without a license from the state was unconstitutional:
Response of President Andrew Jackson: “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!”
The above quotations constitute the texts for today’s essay. Readers will understand their relevance for a new century in which the United States President exercises unprecedented personal power, controls unprecedented national wealth and bestrides the separation of powers like a mighty colossus. Such a situation, unconceivable to the Founding Fathers in 1787, places the seemingly innocuous words that I here address into a significantly more worrying perspective.
So let me begin with state of the union addresses. The Founders naturally were concerned to protect the United States from the abuses associated with European monarchs, most especially, of course, King George III. One perceived abuse was the British monarch’s ritual of addressing the opening of each new Parliament with a list of policy ‘mandates’ rather than ‘recommendations. So the word ‘recommendations’ is truly significant as written into the Constitution, as are the words ‘from time to time’. Both insertions are designed to downplay the importance of the occasion.
The first president, George Washington, defined the meaning of ‘from time to time’. Since 1790, the state of the union message has been delivered regularly at an approximately one year interval. Whether such messages would be delivered orally or in writing, however, would depend, until FDR, on each president’s perceived role. The Federalists, Washington and Adams, personally addressed the Congress. The Republican, Jefferson strongly objected to this ritual and initiated the written address. This was continued until 1913 when America’s first Imperial President, Woodrow Wilson, reverted to the oral address, an approach followed by Harding and by Coolidge in his first address. Thereafter Coolidge and Hoover, as strict constructionists, reverted to the written model.
From FDR onwards, U.S. presidents have strutted across the stage making expansive oral addresses designed to project an image of presidential authority across an increasingly credulous national audience. Fortunately, the United States Congress has not (yet) abandoned its legislative authority. Many a presidential state of the union aspiration turns out to be dead-on-arrival once it enters the doors of the Capitol.
Section 3, Clause 1 – which imposes a duty rather than confers a power – is the formal basis of the President’s legislative leadership, which has attained enormous proportions since 1900. This development owes a lot to the rise of political parties, and to an accompanying recognition of the President as party leader, and to the introduction of the spoils system as a means of exerting presidential influence over Congress. Presidents frequently summon both Houses of Congress into special sessions for legislative purposes, and the Senate alone, for consideration of nominations and treatises. The power to adjourn the Houses has never been exercised.
The ‘right of reception’ has been interpreted to reinforce presidential authority most especially in the area of foreign affairs. The term ‘Ambassadors and other public ministers’ embraces not only any possible diplomatic agent that any foreign power may accredit to the United States, but also all foreign consular agents, who, therefore, may not exercise their functions in the United States without an exequatur from the President. The power to receive includes the right not to receive, to request their recall, to dismiss them and to determine their eligibility. These powers have the unfortunate consequence of making the President the predominant mouthpiece of the nation in its dealings with other nations, surely not something that the Founders (Hamilton was an exception) ever anticipated.
The President must ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed.’ This duty has been used as an ‘open sesame’ opportunity for unscrupulous presidents to transgress the separation of powers. Some presidents have claimed an authority under this provision to impound monies appropriated by Congress. President Jefferson, for example, delayed for over a year the expenditure of monies appropriated for the purchase of U.S. gunboats. FDR and several of his successors from time to time refused outright to expend appropriated monies. In response to such an attempt by President Nixon, the United States Supreme Court finally ruled that such attempts are unconstitutional.
Presidents have also asserted, from time to time, that ‘faithful execution of the laws’ empowers them to suspend the writ of habeas corpus – that most precious legal protection of individual liberty against the state. Article I provides that this privilege may not be suspended except during times of rebellion or invasion. The Supreme Court has determined that such suspensions fall within the jurisdiction of Congress. Yet President Lincoln regularly suspended the privilege during the civil war, albeit eventually and reluctantly succumbing to union-opposition pressures to seek congressional approval.
The Supreme Court subsequently would specifically weaken its own supervisory role in this regard. In Mississippi v Johnson 1867, the Supreme Court ruled that the judiciary may not restrain the President in the execution of laws. In so doing, the Court denied an injunction preventing President Andrew Johnson from executing the Reconstruction Acts, which were claimed to be unconstitutional. Executive acts, when performed, remain subject to judicial scrutiny.
The President’s right to commission ‘all the Officers of the United States’ is also open to serious abuse by unscrupulous incumbents. One of the most famous legal cases in early United States history was induced by such abusive behavior. John Adams, the outgoing Federalist President signed many commissions to the judiciary on his final day in office, hoping as incoming Republican President Thomas Jefferson put it ‘to retire into the judiciary as a stronghold.’ Fortunately, in his haste to complete the coup d’etat, Adams neglected to have all the commissions delivered. President Jefferson and his Secretary of State, James Madison – who knew more than a little about the nature of the Constitution – refused to deliver the remaining commissions.
William Marbury had been appointed by Adams as Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia; but his commission had not been delivered. So, Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court to force Secretary of State Madison to deliver the documents. However, in its famous 1803 Marbury v Madison judgment, the Supreme Court, with John Marshall as Chief Justice, denied Marbury’s petition, holding that the part of the statute upon which he based his claim – the Judiciary Act of 1789 – was unconstitutional.
It is good to end this essay with an early example where a serious abuse of presidential discretion was reined in. Unfortunately, this would be a rare victory in the battle to constrain America’s increasingly imperial presidency, as the executive branch fairly systematically elbowed its way through the separation of powers in order to impose its own brand of absolutism on the American Republic.
Charles K. Rowley, Ph.D. is Duncan Black Professor of Economics at George Mason University and General Director of The Locke Institute in Fairfax, Virginia. He is author of Liberty and the State (The Locke Institute 1993), co-author (with Nathanael Smith) of Economic Contractions in the United States: A Failure of Government (The Locke Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs 2009) and the author of Never Let A Good Crisis Go To Waste (The Locke Institute 2010). All books are available at www.amazon.com. See also www.thelockeinstitute.org and www.charlesrowley.wordpress.com.