In this posting, I will focus on four reasons for the rise of presidential power that has nothing to do with ambitious or power hungry presidents.
1) Days in Session. Much has been made about the president on vacation from the White House. This was a rally cry among Democrats and liberals during the Bush administration, and it has been a rally cry among Republicans and conservatives with the Obama administration. Either way, it is a stupid argument because even when the president is away, he still exercises all the power of the executive branch--meaning he can sign legislation, veto legislation, speak with Congress, sign orders, etc. Not true for the Congress. Since the power of the Congress rests in the 535 members (or in the 300 Republicans the make up the majority in the House and Senate), it takes the collective members to be in session in order to make the Congress work. Yet in the 114th, 1st Session (2015), the House was in session just 158 days and the Senate was in session just 166 days. In the month of August, the House was in session just one day and the Senate just four days. Thus as you can see, the number of bills that a president receives is incredibly small. And yet the president is still expected to lead, or to "do something". And when the Congress denies the president the opportunity to make law the normal way, then the smart plan is to turn to the abnormal way to make law: Go solo. Imagine the outrage by Congress, the press, and the public, if the president simply refused to act unilaterally and only exercised the powers of his office to sign the paltry number of bills the Congress manages to send his way?
2) A second reason for the imbalance of institutional power results from the types of people who occupy the office to which they have been elected. Presidents--and this is an area of bipartisan agreement--seem to be occupied by individuals who have two goals in mind once the inauguration parades are over: to leave the office in better shape than they found it AND to increase their overall power to get things done from first day to last. The Congress does not seem to have the same kind of people. The question is: did it ever? And the answer is yes. 30 years ago, those who studied the Congress made the distinction between "work horses" and "show horses". The work horse was the person who avoided media attention, and instead spent their time making the Congress the dominant institution of government. The show horse? Well this person clamored for media attention in an effort to advance their own position in politics. Studies of Congress today do not talk much about the work horse. Instead, both branches of Congress seem to be filled with members who are constantly looking at the opportunity to advance--for the House, it means the opportunity to move to the Senate (where their profile is going to be much higher than in the House) and in the Senate, it seems to be the opportunity to run for the presidency. Take President Obama as the example. He took office as the junior senator from Illinois in January 2005. By January 2009, he was taking the oath of office for the presidency. And if you read books such as Game Change, it is clear that Senator Obama disdained his time as a senator (one of the many reasons why his arch enemy has been Senator John McCain). And if you listen to the rhetoric of Senators Rubio and Cruz, it is clear that they have little to no respect for the Senate or congressional prerogatives--Cruz in particular. And to ask a rhetorical question: if Cruz or Rubio do win the election in November, are they likely to work to tear down the powers of the presidency out of respect for the constitutional process, or are they likely to seek out way in which they can exploit the language of the Constitution in order to advance presidential powers? I don't need to wait for your response.
3) The "Broken Branch". While I don't necessarily agree with Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann's one party indictment of all the troubles with the Congress, it do agree with their overall thesis that the U.S. Congress is broken. Call it a symptom of divided government or polarization. What is clear is that the Congress seems more concerned with the re-election needs of the members and not to compromise with the president. How do we know? Certainly one way we know is the number of times that the Congress has attempted to overturn the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare". In what universe does one see praise or success in such a futile action to the detriment of other chronic or long-term structural problems that the United States currently faces, such as fixing the debt problem or social security? To date, the Congress has tried 62 times to overturn Obamacare--this in the face of a Supreme Court decision defending the law as well as jiggering with congressional rules to pass the overturn with the bare minimum possible, all the while knowing that any passage will be vetoed by the president, as was the case in the most recent attempt, which President Obama stated in his veto message that this "has earned my veto". This does not matter. The Congress got right back on its horse in an attempt to try the 63d attempt to repeal Obamacare, not because they believe it will happen, but because they are more concerned with giving their members cover in the upcoming election, as well as giving an issue for their eventual nominee to campaign on come November (particularly if that nominee is a current MC). If the definition of crazy is the repeat of an action expecting a different result, then what do you call 62 repeats? How about insane? Thus if the Congress (and this would be true with a Democrat-controlled Congress) seeks only to pass legislation for electoral purposes (and not statutory ones), then how can you expect a president to find areas of compromise?
4) Finally, it is hard to get a president in the mood to compromise when he faces the kind of open hostility that current presidents face! For instance, who would have ever believed that a President of the United States, during a State of the Union address, would ever hear a MC scream out "You Lie!"? What's worse? The "You Lie" shout happened at President Obama's very first State of the Union address. Not a way to suggest that the Congress is here and ready to go to work. Furthermore, rather than shrivel in shame, Representative Joe Wilson used it as a fundraising opportunity--and a successful fundraising opportunity at that. Furthermore, on the other side of Congress, and also right there early in President Obama's first term in office, there was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R. KY), speaking before the conservative Heritage Foundation about the top legislative strategy would be to make President Obama "a one term president":
So as we look forward to the next president, we should certainly be wary of the continuous push to exercise power to the detriment of the constitutional processes. But in our concern, our focus should include the negligence of one branch of government to protect and defend its powers, simply because power not exercised is not the same as power not used.