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Context of '1787: US Government Crafted to Ensure Presidential Powers Limited by Congress, Courts'

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After the failure of the US federal government under the Articles of Confederation, the men working to shape the new American government—later termed the “Founders”—determine that the new government must have a president with power equal to that of Congress and the Supreme Court. The federal government itself has far more power under the new Constitution than it had under the Articles, but many Founders worry that the government will have, or take upon itself, the power to constrain or even destroy individual rights and freedoms. The government, therefore, will have strict limitations on its functions, and will be divided into three co-equal branches. Debate over whether the new government should have a single president or an executive council rages, but eventually the Founders decide that a single president could best act decisively in times of crisis. However, Congress has the strength to curtail presidential power via legislation and oversight. One of the Founders’ most crucial decisions is to give Congress, not the president, the power to declare war and commit military troops to battle. Congress must also authorize any military actions that fall short of actual war, the creation and maintenance of armies, and exercise control over how the president can call on the armed forces in emergencies. Finally, the Founders, all too aware that until the English Revolution of 1688, the King of England could use his “prerogative powers” to dispense with a law that he felt unnecessary, move to ensure that the US president cannot use a similar usurpation of power to override Congressional legislation, writing in the Constitution that the president must “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” In 2007, reporter Charlie Savage, drawing on James Madison’s Federalist Papers, will write: “Knowing that it was inevitable that from time to time foolish, corrupt, or shortsighted individuals would win positions of responsibility in the government, the Founders came up with a system that would limit anyone’s ability to become a tyrant or to otherwise wreck the country. And over the next century and a half, the system worked as the Founders had designed it to work.” (Savage 2007, pp. 14-16)

James Madison, one of the founders of the American system of constitutional government (see 1787), writes of the importance of Congress, not the president, retaining the power to send the nation to war. “Those who are to conduct a war cannot, in the nature of things, be proper or safe judges,” he writes, “whether a war ought to be commenced, continued, or concluded. They are barred from the latter functions by a great principle in free government, analagous to that which separates the sword from the purse, or the power from executing from the power of enacting laws.” (Savage 2007, pp. 19)

President Abraham Lincoln, responding to a Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, does not wait for Congress to begin its next session to make his response. Instead, Lincoln, wielding powers that the Constitution does not grant him and without a formal declaration of war, drastically enlarges the Union’s army and navy, blockades Southern ports, spends money not appropriated by Congress, and arrests Northern citizens suspected of being Confederate sympathizers. All of these steps exceed his authority under the Constitution and under federal law. Lincoln addresses Congress as soon as it reconvenes, admitting that he has exceeded his authority (see 1787 and 1793), and refusing to argue that his actions are lawful based on any “prerogative of power” inherent to the presidency. Instead, he explains that he felt he had to respond immediately to the sudden crisis, and asks Congress to retroactively authorize his emergency actions. He says, “These measures, whether strictly legal or not, were ventured upon under what appeared to be a popular demand and a public necessity, trusting then, as now, that Congress would readily ratify them.” Congress gives Lincoln the retroactive authorization he seeks. (Savage 2007, pp. 16-17)

President Roosevelt signs the US declaration of war with Japan.President Roosevelt signs the US declaration of war with Japan. [Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum]President Roosevelt, recognizing that Congress has the Constitutional authority to declare war (see 1787 and 1793), asks the legislature for a declaration of war against Japan in retaliation for the Japanese air attack against US naval forces at Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt calls the date of the Pearl Harbor attack, December 7, 1941, “a day which will live in infamy.” He says, “I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.” With a single exception—Representative Jeannette Rankin (R-MT)—every member of the House and Senate votes to authorize war against Japan. The next day, the US will declare war against Germany and Italy as well. (Savage 2007, pp. 18; Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum 2/10/2008)

President Harry Truman, without the approval of Congress, sends US troops to fight in the Korean War. Unlike his predecessor (see December 8, 1941), Truman asserts that he has the inherent right to do so as the commander in chief (see 1787 and 1793). Truman bases his decision in part on a UN Security Council resolution passed three days before—at the US’s behest—approving military aid to South Korea, which was invaded by North Korean troops on June 25. In 2007, reporter and author Charlie Savage will write: “But the permission of foreign states was irrelevant to the domestic legal issue of who got to decide whether the United States would go to war. No president had ever before launched anything on the scale of the Korean War without prior permission from Congress, as the Constitution requires.” Savage will explain why Congress allows Truman to usurp its prerogatives: “[M]embers of Congress, eager to appear tough against Communism and to support a war effort, did nothing to block Truman.” (Savage 2007, pp. 19; Truman Library 3/2008)

Edwin Meese.Edwin Meese. [Source: GQ (.com)]Attorney General Edwin Meese receives a report, “Separation of Powers: Legislative-Executive Relations.” Meese had commissioned the report from the Justice Department’s Domestic Policy Committee, an internal “think tank” staffed with hardline conservative scholars and policy advisers.
Recommendations for Restoring, Expanding Executive Power - The Meese report approvingly notes that “the strong leadership of President Reagan seems clearly to have ended the congressional resurgence of the 1970s.” It lays out recommendations for restoring the power taken from the executive branch after Watergate and Vietnam, and adding new powers besides. It recommends that the White House refuse to enforce laws and statutes that “unconstitutionally encroach upon the executive branch,” and for Reagan to veto more legislation and to use “signing statements” to state the White House’s position on newly passed laws. It also assails the 1972 War Powers Resolution and other laws that limit presidential power.
Reinterpreting the Separation of Powers and the Concept of 'Checks and Balances' - Perhaps most importantly, the Meese report claims that for 200 years, courts and scholars alike have misunderstood and misinterpreted the Founders’ intentions in positing the “separation of powers” system (see 1787 and 1793). The belief that the Constitution mandates three separate, co-equal branches of government—executive, judicial, and legislative—who wield overlapping areas of authority and work to keep each of the other branches from usurping too much power—a concept taught in school as “checks and balances”—is wrong, the report asserts. Instead, each branch has separate and independent sets of powers, and none of the three branches may tread or encroach on the others’ area of responsibility and authority. “The only ‘sharing of power’ is the sharing of the sum of all national government power,” the report claims. “But that is not joint shared, it is explicitly divided among the three branches.” According to the report, the White House should exercise total and unchallenged control of the executive branch, which, as reporter and author Charlie Savage will later explain, “could be conceived of as a unitary being with the president as its brain.” The concept of “checks and balances” is nothing more than an unconstitutional attempt by Congress to encroach on the rightful power of the executive. This theory of presidential function will soon be dubbed the “unitary executive theory,” a title adapted from a passage by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. (Savage 2007, pp. 47-48) Charles Fried, Reagan’s solicitor general during the second term, will later write that though the unitary executive theory displays “perfect logic” and a “beautiful symmetry,” it is difficult to defend, because it “is not literally compelled by the words of the Constitution. Nor did the framers’ intent compel this view.” (Savage 2007, pp. 50)

John Yoo.John Yoo. [Source: University of California, Berkeley]In a secret 15-page memo to Deputy White House Counsel Timothy Flanigan, Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, a deputy in the Office of Legal Counsel, reasons that it is “beyond question that the president has the plenary constitutional power to take such military actions as he deems necessary and appropriate to respond to the terrorist attacks” of 9/11. Those actions can be extensive. “The president may deploy military force preemptively against terrorist organizations or the states that harbor or support them,” Yoo writes, “whether or not they can be linked to the specific terrorist incidents of Sept. 11.… Force can be used both to retaliate for those attacks, and to prevent and deter future assaults on the nation. Military actions need not be limited to those individuals, groups, or states that participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.” The memo is solicited and overseen by White House lawyers.
Power Derives from Constitution, Congressional Authorization for War - This power of the president, Yoo states, rests both on the US Congress’ Joint Resolution of September 14 (see September 14-18, 2001) and on the War Powers Resolution of 1973. “Neither statute, however, can place any limits on the president’s determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response. These decisions, under our Constitution, are for the president alone to make.” (Most experts believe that the Constitution strictly limits the president’s power to declare and conduct war—see 1787).
Power More Extensive than Congress Authorized - Yoo argues further that the September 14 resolution does not represent the limits to the president’s authority. “We think it beyond question” that Congress cannot “place any limits on the president’s determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response. These decisions, under our Constitution, are for the president alone to make.” Congress’s “Joint Resolution is somewhat narrower than the president’s constitutional authority,” Yoo writes, as it “does not reach other terrorist individuals, groups, or states which cannot be determined to have links to the September 11 attacks.” The president’s broad power can be used against selected individuals suspected of posing a danger to the US, even though it may be “difficult to establish, by the standards of criminal law or even lower legal standards, that particular individuals or groups have been or may be implicated in attacks on the United States.” Yoo concludes: “[W]e do not think that the difficulty or impossibility of establishing proof to a criminal law standard (or of making evidence public) bars the president from taking such military measures as, in his best judgment, he thinks necessary or appropriate to defend the United States from terrorist attacks. In the exercise of his plenary power to use military force, the president’s decisions are for him alone and are unreviewable.”
'Unenumerated' Presidential Powers - Yoo even asserts that the president has more power than his memo claims: “[T]he president’s powers include inherent executive powers that are unenumerated in the Constitution,” including but not limited to the power to take the country to war without Congressional input. (US Department of Justice 9/25/2001; Savage 2007, pp. 121-122)
Memo Remains Secret for Three Years - The contents of this memo are not disclosed until mid-December 2004. (Isikoff 12/18/2004; Isikoff, Klaidman, and Hirsh 12/27/2004)

President Bush sends a letter to Congress informing legislators that he has ordered US armed forces into combat against the Taliban (see October 7, 2001). Bush does not rely on Congress’s Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF—see September 14-18, 2001), but instead asserts his unilateral authority as president to take the country into war. “I have taken these actions pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct US foreign relations as commander in chief and chief executive,” he writes (see 1787). His letter goes on to express his appreciation to Congress for its “support” in his decision to begin a war against a foreign entity. (Savage 2007, pp. 127-128)


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