In contrast to the many powers it gives Congress, the Constitution grants few specific powers to the president. Indeed, most of Article II, which deals with the executive branch, relates to the method of election, term and qualifications for office, and procedures for succession and impeachment rather than what the president can do. The powers of the president are not limited to those granted in the Constitution. Presidential authority has expanded through the concept of inherent powers (see the section on inherent powers later in this chapter) as well as through legislative action.
The president has the authority to negotiate treaties with other nations. These formal international agreements do not go into effect, however, until ratified by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. Although most treaties are routinely approved, the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles (1919), which ended World War I and which President Woodrow Wilson had signed, and, more recently, refused to take action on President Jimmy Carter’s SALT II Treaty on arms limitation (1979).
The president selects many people to serve the government in a wide range of offices: most important among them are ambassadors, members of the Supreme Court and the federal courts, and cabinet secretaries. More than 2,000 of these positions require confirmation (approval) by the Senate under the “advice and consent” provision of the Constitution. Confirmation hearings can become controversial, as did the hearing for Clarence Thomas, President George H. W. Bush’s nominee for the Supreme Court. Sometimes appointments to ambassadorships are given as a reward for faithful service to the president’s political party or for significant campaign contributions. Such appointments are considered patronage.
The president is authorized to proposed legislation. A president usually outlines the administration’s legislative agenda in the State of the Union address given to a joint session of Congress each January. The president’s veto power is an important check on Congress. If the president rejects a bill, it takes a two-thirds vote of both houses, which is difficult to achieve, to accomplish a veto override.
Other specific powers
The president can call Congress into special session and can adjourn Congress if the House and the Senate cannot agree on a final date. The power to grant pardons for federal
crimes (except impeachment) is also given to the president. President Gerald Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon for any crimes he may have committed while in office, and he was able to do so because Nixon resigned before impeachment charges were brought.
Inherent powers are those that can be inferred from the Constitution. Based on the major role the Constitution gives the president in foreign policy (that is, the authority to negotiate treaties and to appoint and receive ambassadors), President George Washington declared that the United States would remain neutral in the 1793 war between France and Great Britain. To conduct foreign policy, presidents also have signed executive agreements with other countries that do not require Senate action. The Supreme Court ruled that these agreements are within the inherent powers of the president. Under executive privilege, the president decides when information developed within the executive branch cannot be released to Congress or the courts. A claim of executive privilege is based on the separation of powers, the need to protect diplomatic and military secrets, and the notion that people around the president must feel free to give candid advice. Many presidents have invoked executive privilege — including Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and George W. Bush during the investigation into the firing of a number of U.S. attorneys.
As commander in chief of the armed forces, presidents have sent American troops into combat or combat situations without congressional authorization. The experience of the Vietnam War led to the War Powers Act (1973), which requires the president to consult Congress and to withdraw troops after 60 days unless Congress specifically approves their continued deployment. Congress authorized the use of force in Iraq in 2002. As opposition to the war grew, however, Congress found it difficult to compel the president to change policy by any means short of cutting off all funding for the conflict. Inherent powers allow a president to respond to a crisis. Examples include Abraham Lincoln’s response to the Civil War, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression and World War II, and George W. Bush’s response to the events of September 11. Presidential actions based on inherent powers can be limited by legislation or declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Delegation of powers
Congress has given power to the executive branch in the area of domestic policy. President Franklin Roosevelt asked for and received extraordinary authority to do what he thought was necessary to bring the country out of the Depression. Congress has created new cabinet departments and federal agencies that have given the president and the executive branch broad powers to address problems such as education, welfare, the environment, and, most recently, homeland security. The trend throughout the 20th century has been to increase presidential powers at the expense of Congress.
Organization of the Executive Branch
Policy is not developed nor are all executive decisions made by the president alone. Presidents have come to rely on a large staff based in the White House to handle a wide range of administrative tasks from policymaking to speechwriting. The staff is loyal to the president, not to Congress or a government agency. Unchecked by the president, the White House staff can become a source of scandal. Watergate under President Nixon is a good example. The Constitution gives practically no direction on the organization of the executive branch. It does mention “executive departments,” which became the basis for the cabinet. While relying primarily on the White House staff for advice, a president turns to members of the cabinet for advice in their areas of expertise. In the main, however, cabinet secretaries are responsible for running the departments they head.
The Executive Office of the President
The Executive Office of the President (EOP) comprises four agencies that advise the president in key policy areas: the White House Office, the National Security Council, the Council of Economic Advisors, and the Office of Management and Budget. The president’s main advisers, often long-time personal friends or people who played a key role in the election, make up the White House Office. It includes the president’s personal lawyer, press secretary, appointments secretary, and other support personnel. The most important position in this group is the chief of staff, who is responsible for seeing that the president’s legislative goals are carried out by working with Congress on the legislative agenda.
The National Security Council (NSC), organized in 1947, deals with domestic, foreign, and military policies affecting security issues. By law, the NSC is composed of the president, vice president, secretary of defense, and secretary of state. Representatives of the intelligence and defense communities are also members. The president’s national security advisor supervises the council’s activities. The Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) was created in 1946 to provide the president with information on economic policy. It is best known for predicting national economic trends. The enormously complex task of preparing the federal budget for submission to Congress falls to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Originally established
in the Treasury Department as the Bureau of the Budget, the OMB has had its powers expanded considerably since 1970. It is involved in drafting the president’s legislative program and evaluating how effectively federal agencies use their appropriations. The Executive Office of the President also includes the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of National AIDS Policy, the Office of National Drug Policy, and the Office of the United States Trade Representative. The president is free to establish new agencies within the EOP. George W. Bush created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the USA Freedom Corps.
George Washington appointed the first executive department heads in 1789. They were the attorney general, secretary of state, secretary of treasury, and secretary of war. As the scope and functions of the federal government grew, the number of executive departments increased. The heads of these departments, who all have the title secretary (except the attorney general of the U.S. Department of Justice), make up the core of the president’s cabinet. From time to time, the cabinet departments have been reorganized, along with the agencies under them. For example, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was originally part of the Department of Labor but was transferred to the Justice Department in 1940. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (1953) was renamed Health and Human Services in 1979 when a separate Department of Education was established. In addition to the secretaries of the departments, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the OMB director, and other officials participate in the cabinet. Following are the cabinet departments as they have existed since 1989:
Justice (1789) State (1789) Treasury (1789) Interior (1849) Agriculture (1889) Commerce (1903; originally included Labor) Labor (1913) Defense (1947) Health and Human Services (1953) Housing and Urban Development (1965) Transportation (1967) Energy (1977) Education (1979) Homeland Security (2003)