In his State of the Union speech to Congress last month, President Barack Obama drew widespread attention for pledging to use his executive authority to advance his priorities. He insisted he intends to act with or without Congress, and listed well over a dozen actions he plans to take by executive order.
Obamaís speech was applauded by pundits who have given up on Congress and believe the only way to move forward is by strengthening the presidency. A stronger presidency would get Washington moving again.
Others are alarmed by this approach. The president, they say, is trampling on the constitutional separation of powers, grabbing powers meant to be shared with Congress.
The problem with this debate is that itís missing a key part of the equation. Yes, our system needs a strong presidency. But it also needs a strong Congress. We are best off as a nation when the two consult, interact, and work together as powerful branches.
Every president in recent memory has expanded the power of his office and been accused of a power grab. Theyíve had plenty of motivation to do so. The modern world demands decisive action. Americans tend to support presidents who act forcefully. Congress is complex and hard to work with.
Yet there are limits to this approach, because in the end there is no substitute for legislation. Executive orders lack the permanence and force of law, so they can be hard to implement and can be canceled by a later president. They donít benefit from consensus-building and consultation with voices independent of the presidentís.
Consensus-building canít happen in a vacuum, however. Without a strong Congress able to find its way effectively through the thickets of lawmaking, this president and his successors will surely continue to address the nationís challenges on their own. The question is, how far down that road can we go before Congress becomes irrelevant, with too much power ó and too much potential for the abuse of power ó in presidential hands?
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and a former member of Congress.