In recent years, Americans of all ideological stripes have become increasingly fixated on the presidency above all else in politics.

This is reflected in the growing tendency of the press to report breathlessly on everything the current occupant of the Oval Office does on a day-to-day basis, even if it’s not particularly relevant to policy or governance. This has had a corrosive effect on our culture at large, as the country has become more divided with each administration, and everything – from sports to entertainment to technology – is viewed these days through a political lens. It’s thanks to the prevalence of the president in our socio-political lives that the country is increasingly split into two political tribes that value loyalty to their party (or, indeed, to one person) above all else.

Partly, this has come from the rising powers of the office itself over the years.

Congress has increasingly ceded its constitutionally-granted powers to the executive branch, in areas from trade to foreign policy to national defense. This hasn’t been done because it is good policy, good government, or because it makes good sense, but instead because it allows members of Congress to avoid both responsibility and blame, which comes in handy during election season.

None of this is anywhere close to what the founders of our republic intended when they drafted the Constitution. They had just fought a war to break away from a strong, tyrannical king who had basically unlimited political authority. The last thing they wanted in the new country they were forming from the ground up was a similar figure, regardless of whether he was elected or not. While they gave the president a great number of powers, those powers were to be restrained by Congress in a variety of ways with the intent to create an effective system of checks and balances. So, while the president was to serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces during times of war, only Congress itself could decide to go to war. The president could negotiate treaties, but they had to be ratified by the Senate; he could appoint officials in the government, but they needed to be confirmed. Finally, the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed that any powers not specifically granted to the federal government were reserved to the states or the people.

Early in the years of the republic, this system of checks and balances worked fairly well. Wars were declared by Congress, and when troops were needed, an army was raised – then, during peacetime, it was (largely) disbanded. Presidents were allowed the flexibility to act, especially during times of crisis like the Civil War, but if they overstepped their bounds when it wasn’t necessary, Congress took steps to rein them in.

Then along came the twin crises of the Great Depression and World War II, and the powers of the federal government expanded substantially – and exponentially. A whole new raft of powers was granted to the executive branch, and a plethora of new agencies were created. After the crises were averted and the war was won, the federal government did not shrink back to a smaller size, as it had after previous conflicts. The age of the imperial presidency had begun, with each successive administration gradually broadening the role of both the executive branch and the federal government as a whole. A standing army was made a permanent feature of the U.S. government, as was its intelligence apparatus, with their roles expanding at home and around the world over the years.

Today, with the ongoing global war on terror, we have seen a vast new expansion of executive branch authority. The president starts wars and signs international agreements on his own, and the opposition party grumbles, but rarely offers any serious oversight. Instead, they use their grumbling to motivate their base, then turn around and do the exact same thing once they get the Oval Office back in their hands.

What we need now is a bipartisan commitment to reining in the power of the presidency and reducing the size of the federal government.

Congress ought to work together to reassert its authority in the areas where it’s unwisely ceded power, and to hold the president accountable regardless of politics. That’s the government our country needs now, but if it’s going to happen, it will be up to us as voters to elect the people who will do the right thing and put their country first, not their party.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel

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