More On: rein in presidential powers
Congress and President Biden should work together to limit the president's power in war, emergencies, international trade, and other areas, as well as the use of executive orders instead of laws.
Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin's most persistent opponent, wrote from prison to criticize decisions made in the past that gave Putin the power he now abuses.
"Both the democratic public inside the country and the leaders of the West at the time made the terrible mistake of agreeing to Boris Yeltsin's team's model of a presidential republic in which the leader has a lot of power," Navalny wrote.
"Giving a good guy a lot of power made sense at the time," he wrote.
Navalny is now in prison for nine years on charges that were made up because he was against Putin.
It's an old story, but some people still don't seem to learn the lesson: don't give too much power to the government or, more specifically, to the executive without thinking about who might one day use that power.
The people who wrote the U.S. Constitution gave the president limited powers, but if they didn't trust George Washington so much, they might have given him even less.
When I took a trip around the world in 1988, it was right before big changes happened in many places. One of the places I visited was Hong Kong, where everyone knew that the People's Republic of China would take over from the United Kingdom in 1997. Libertarians tried to convince the British rulers to bring democracy to the colony before it was taken over by China.
Even though some steps were taken in that direction, the chief executive and his cabinet, who were chosen by the UK at first and then by the Communist government of China, still had the most power. We've seen how things turned out.
In the United States, my Cato Institute coworkers and I have repeatedly told both Democrats and Republicans that the other party will eventually control new agencies and new powers. We want to know if you really want your political opponents to run that agency or use those powers. They never pay attention.
In the last few decades, politicians had many reasons to do this. Every modern president has made it easier for the next one to do their job. And it's not like people don't notice when presidents abuse their power. Three of the 10 presidents we've had in the last 100 years were removed from office because they went too far.
Alex Emmons wrote in The Intercept right after the 2016 election, "When Donald Trump becomes commander-in-chief in January, he will have more expansive and unchecked presidential powers than any president has ever had." "Tyrant-Proof the White House—Before It's Too Late," Conor Friedersdorf begged Obama in March 2016, as the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was heating up.
Friedersdorf wrote, "Your successor is likely to be less honest and easier to bribe than you were." "Do what you can to make it harder for him or her to break rights or hide crimes before you leave."
He also asked members of Congress, "Why not start putting limits on the power of the executive branch now, when there is the best chance that both parties will work together on such a project?"
President Biden will be remembered for not giving a second term to a president who said, "When someone is the president of the United States, they have total authority" and then tried to change the results of the election he lost. Biden will look better in history if he spends the last two years of his term working with Congress to bring back the checks and balances that the Constitution calls for.
He hasn't started out well. Biden said that his plan to extend a ban on evictions past 2021 was "not likely to pass constitutional muster," but he did it anyway. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said, "People think that the President of the United States has the power to forgive debt. He does not. He can postpone. He can delay. But he is not able to do that. That needs a law from Congress." Still, Biden did it. Pelosi and the Republicans in Congress should do something to make sure that presidents can't make laws without going through Congress.
Power has been moving from the states to the federal government and from Congress to the White House for most of the last century. Congress, to which the Constitution gives "all legislative powers herein granted," needs to show that it is in charge. Congress and President Biden should work together to limit the president's power in war, emergencies, international trade, and other areas, as well as the use of executive orders instead of laws.
Of course, executive power would be less likely to be abused if the federal government was smaller and didn't try to control everything from health care and retirement to high school bathrooms and wars on the other side of the world. But Congress can still insist that it has the power to make decisions at the federal level.
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts completely," Lord Acton, a famous historian, said. With a constitution that divided and limited power, the Framers set out to solve this problem.
Even if you trust Joe Biden, you should ask yourself: Will you be okay if Ron DeSantis, Kamala Harris, Gavin Newsom, or a second round of Donald Trump is in charge of the presidency one day?