In the run-up to the November 3 election, Americans were bombarded with empty platitudes and dishonest hyperbole. Of course, most of us are used to hearing that the election at hand is “the most important in our lifetime.” Every four years, we are force-fed this vapid banality, which is almost always false.

However, some of my favorite election-time predictions are gross exaggerations like those exclaiming that if we elect so-and-so president, then that will mark the end of America. Thankfully, these predictions have never come to fruition, but it’s a common scare tactic and a revealing one at that. If many Americans truly believe that the office of the presidency is powerful enough to topple our government, then our executive branch’s authority clearly needs to be pruned.

Historically, America has had a strained relationship with consolidated executive power that has gradually warmed. Colonial America rejected the British monarchy and eventually instituted the Articles of Confederation—the forerunner to our current form of government. It ensured that power largely resided with the states, but there was still a Congress and even a president.

This position was far different than the current presidency. It was president of Congress rather than of America, and the office had very little influence. In fact, John Hanson was the first president of Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and his role was essentially impotent. His position was unpaid, largely ceremonial, and he even had to receive permission in order to pen letters to foreign officials.

Before long, the Articles of Confederation was replaced by our current Constitution, and a stronger federal government and presidency—limited by checks and balances—were created. While this presidency was restrained, in large part, for years, it gradually began to amass immense puissance. As is often the case, the pendulum of power usually swings toward increased and consolidated authority. In fact, nearly every president in the 20th and 21st centuries seems to have incrementally expanded the boundaries of their purview.

Today, the presidency is strikingly different from the one as intended by our founding fathers. Presidents appear to regularly bypass Congress and rule by executive order. The agencies that they oversee have become hulking behemoths. And the 10th Amendment, which states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” has become an afterthought. Indeed, the federal government and the presidency have gobbled up much of the states’ roles.

While academics will likely continue debating over why this happened, part of the answer seems fairly obvious. The primary goal of many politicians is to be re-elected, which means that they do not want to make difficult or unpopular decisions. They’d rather someone else do it so that they can be blameless. This is the truth for some state legislators who demand Congress to act in their stead, and it is true for many members of Congress who subsequently want presidents to act. Further, too frequently bickering bogs congressional progress down, forcing its members to look to the presidency to step in.

Meanwhile, presidents often feel that they know best and should act accordingly—especially in the presence of congressional inaction—and let’s face it, given that humans tend to gravitate toward more authority, presidents have willingly seized it for one reason or another. The result is a massively powerful executive branch, which threatens to continue growing.

Unless there is a concerted effort to do otherwise, in American government, power invariably seems to trickle up, and the executive branch acts as a vacuum sucking up every morsel of power. Strangely, short-sighted Americans gleefully embrace this process when a president of their own party is in the White House, and then cower in fear when they lose power because the opposition acts just as they had.

Rather than permitting the reliance on unilateral executive action to become the status quo, states and Congress need to take responsibility. First, lawmakers should be more willing to reach across the aisle to alleviate legislative logjams. Second, state officials and Congress need to quit looking to a higher government power to solve policy disputes and should instead reclaim and assert their constitutional authority.

Our form of government was originally designed so that no single elected official could become strong enough to destroy America, but given that many fear that a president could do just that might be evidence of an executive branch that’s become too powerful.

While the result of this election probably won’t be the end of America as we know it, the presidency has become far more powerful than the founding fathers ever envisioned, and it’s high time to curtail this authority.

Image credit: ANUJAK JAIMOOK

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