The shift in power towards the executive branch after the Spanish-American War is a defining aspect of the U.S. government structure in the twentieth century. The presidency of Theodore Roosevelt can be considered the start of increasing Presidential authority. This paper is going to examine the growth of Presidential power during President Roosevelt time in office as well as the Congressional responses to the changes. Moreover, the paper focuses on the growth of the military as an important aspect of the expansion of the executive branch.
Historically, before the Spanish-American War and the beginning of the twentieth century, the U.S. Congress remained the leading power of the country’s political system. At the dawn of the new era, Theodore Roosevelt transformed the Presidential office by imbuing it with prestige and media coverage it has never known before. President Roosevelt has left an enduring legacy regarding the authority of the executive branch due to his innovative strategies to ensure swift policy changes without Congressional approval. Moreover, Theodore Roosevelt became a symbolic figure for the American people as he was “the frontiersman who faced down a grizzly, the Rough Rider who fought in the Spanish-American War, the presidential candidate who made a speech with a fresh bullet wound in his chest” (O’Toole, 2019, para. 2). All in all, President Roosevelt was a talented leader of the nation, whose triumphs contributed significantly in the gradual process of shaping modern America. The relationship between the legislative and executive branches has transformed after the Spanish-American War as a result of the more aggressive executive leadership as well as America’s changing role on the international arena (O’Toole, 2019).
The Transformation of the Executive Branch under Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt was a reformer, who implemented initiatives his predecessors only contemplated (Cunningham, 2016). Through these aggressive measures, he expanded and redefined the role and power of the Presidential office. Gatewood and Gould (1992) argue that Roosevelt personalizes the presidency, “as was evident in how he approached the trust issue, intervened in the coal strike, engaged in publicity and managed the news” (p. 514). The President’s vision of the role of the executive branch is reflected in his efforts to be a part of solving problems as diverse as Panama Canal and conservation. Although Roosevelt’s time in office could be characterized as relatively peaceful and prosperous, the President has to face the issues related to industrialization and urbanization. In addition, newly acquired overseas lands complicated Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts to strengthen the presidency. As a result, the President started to propose solutions, reshaping the role of the executive branch along the way.
It is important to recognize that President Roosevelt moves very cautiously at the start of his presidency (Gatewood and Gould, 1992). In view of his accidental rise to power due to McKinley’s assassination, Theodore Roosevelt decided to take small steps at first, which would amount to a legacy that revolutionized the structure of the U.S. government. The President wanted to establish America as the world’s greatest power, which meant that federal action was necessary. Roosevelt’s efforts to eliminate inequities, stop the exploitation of natural resources, and put an end to the proliferation of trusts resulted in the expansion of the President’s role in dealing with the nation’s issues.
A great example of President Roosevelt’s contribution to the evolution of the federal regulatory procedures is the passage of the Hepburn Act of 1906. The act was a reflection of Roosevelt’s efforts to advocate for corporate regulation and the use of the executive branch to create effective solutions for social and economic issues. Roosevelt “displayed little inclination to adhere rigidly to established procedures” since he was convinced of the primary significance of creativity and adaptability in the Presidential office (Gatewood and Gould, 1992, p. 515). Therefore, Roosevelt’s presidency led to so many changes as a result of his personal and improvised style of political leadership.
As for President Roosevelt’s legacy in the arena of international affairs, it exhibited the same tendencies that characterized his domestic affairs. Theodore Roosevelt preferred time act outside established diplomatic channels. Acting as his own Secretary of State, Roosevelt delighted “in impressing the German emperor, outmaneuvering the Canadians, and overawing the Columbians” (Gatewood and Gould, 1992, p. 515). The President expanded the role of the U.S. leader by shifting the focus in foreign affairs to personal diplomacy in his efforts to secure American interests in the Far East, establish the U.S. dominance in the Caribbean, and avoid a military conflict with Japan. Thus, Roosevelt managed to utilize his innovative strategies to influence The United States’ position in the world.
Despite all of the aforementioned initiatives of President Roosevelt, a central aspect of his approach to presidency was the use of executive power to end Congressional inaction (Ernst, 2017). Roosevelt was the first President to expand the utilization of executive orders and other actions. Theodore Roosevelt’s unprecedented rate of issuing executive orders resulted in an annual average of more than 140 orders, which amounted to 1081 orders at the end of his presidency. In comparison, the first President of the United States, George Washington, issued eight of them. Although Presidents before Theodore Roosevelt used their authority to issue executive orders, their use was limited.
The popularization of orders dates back to the latter part of 1800s, which means that President Roosevelt has not started a revolution in the use of executive orders (Ernst, 2017). However, Roosevelt demonstrated his aggressive approach to government leadership in his opposition to the restrictions presented by Congress through the use of executive orders. By becoming a champion for the unabashed utilization of orders, President Roosevelt inspired his successors to follow his example and use substantive executive orders to contribute to social and economic changes, rather than “waste” their power on administrative issues. Woodrow Wilson, for instance, issued 1803 orders during his two terms in office (Ernst, 2017). Therefore, President Roosevelt became a pioneer in emphasizing the use of executive orders as a mechanism to stop Congressional inaction.
Congressional Response to the Power Shift
When it comes to the response of the Congress to the expanding powers of the President, it is apparent that increasing political polarization is an obstacle to the ability of the legislative branch to exercise its right of Congressional oversight (Khan Academy, 2018). Congress is now at the mercy of the President for various issues, which is why it is hard for the legislative branch to reassert its position. The period from early 2000s to the end of Barack Obama’s presidency can be characterized as an era of Congressional inaction. The start of the decline of the power of Congressional oversight is arguably the Authorization for Use of Military Force Act, which was essentially the legal justification for the military operations in the Middle East. Despite the abuse of the Military Force Act, legislators did not constrain executive authority by changing the Act. However, Congress challenges Donald Trump’s presidency with continuous checks and the threat of impeachment. These two extreme approaches to Congressional oversight do not result in the balance of power described in the Constitution.
During President Bush’s time in office, Congress initiated a number of semi-aggressive measures to limit the scope of Presidential authority. The first instance is the efforts of Democrats to put an end to the trend of recess appointments by challenging the legality of Bush’s nomination process in court. Democrats argued that the appeals court nominee’s (William Pryor) appointment to the federal appeals court was illegal since it was unconstitutional “to make recess appointments during the short intrasession recesses that occur during a congressional session” (Black et al., 2011, p. 578). Despite that, lawsuits remain an unpopular strategy to respond to the expanding authority of the executive branch. Firstly, they are time consuming as it usually takes months for a case to go through the courts and the appeals process. Secondly, overly relying on the courts is risky for Congress because “if the courts side with the president, then the president, who was relying on his interpretation of constitutional gray areas, will now be able to act with legal authority in an area now made black and white thanks to the court’s ruling” (Black et al., 2011, p. 579). Therefore, while relying on the judicial branch is an option, it is a rather ineffective way to respond to the growing authority of the President.
A more efficient strategy incorporated by legislators in their struggle to battle Presidential dominance is the threat of Senate delay (Black et al., 2011). For instance, threats of delay are a great example of Congress’ efforts to make Presidents limit their use of the recess appointment clause. Although this option is more efficient than lawsuits, it still requires a lot of time and energy. Delaying presidential nominations cuts the time on dealing with other potentially important legislative issues. Therefore, the legislative branch often needs to act in unfavorable conditions by applying the strategies, which may be costly and time-consuming.
The Impact of the Growth of the Military
Although the founding fathers envisioned the President as a symbolic commander in chief, the modern political dynamics grant the executive branch a lot more powers in regards to military operations (American University, 2016). The growth of the U.S. military after the Spanish-American War can be largely attributed to the number of conflicts in the twentieth century and the technological development in weapons associated with America’s participation in such conflicts. The presidency of Theodore Roosevelt initiated significant shifts in the power balance between the branches, whereas the growth of the military resulted in Presidential dominance. From 2001 and up until recently, the legislative branch failed to constrain Presidential authority to launch large-scale military operations in the Middle East justified as the “War on Terror,” which was often not the case (Gardner, 2020). Due to the growth of the military sector, Presidential powers expanded since a lot of the executive decisions could be hidden under the umbrella of protecting national interests.
In conclusion, it is crucial to examine the changing dynamics between the executive and legislative branches to develop an in-depth understanding of America’s balance of power. Before the twentieth century, the President had to have the cooperation of bureaucracies to ensure his decisions transformed into government action. However, polarization between legislators resulted in their inability to challenge the President efficiently. On the one hand, congressional restrictions described in the U.S. Constitution serve as tools to limit the power of the President. On the other hand, however, the content of the Constitution is vague enough to have multiple interpretations of the scope of Presidential authority.
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