Congress & The Presidency

Modern scholars of American government often claim that there has been an institutional shift in power from the legislative to the executive over the last seventy sixty years. The term has been coined as the imperial presidency, in which the chief executive exercises powers that go far beyond Constitutional limits. Some claim that this has severely weakened the role of Congress in the American political system.
A truly imperial presidency is one which overrides or evades congressional will, even in cases that to us seem banal. Throughout our history several American presidents have exercised their will in this manner. Andrew Jackson’s famous veto of Congress’s decision to charter the Second Bank of the United States established the precedent that a policy disagreement could justify a veto. At the time, Jackson’s action was viewed as an enormous overreach on the part of the executive branch. Similarly, Andrew Johnson was notorious for his efforts to systematically interfere with congressional will after the Civil War and during the Reconstruction era. In modern times, Richard Nixon excessively claimed executive privilege in an attempt to evade congressional investigations during Watergate. The Reagan administration’s determination to circumvent congressional restrictions on the sale of weapons prompted the Iran-Contra scandal. And who could forget George W. Bush’s administration’s use of wiretapping and torture during the Iraqi War? Undoubtedly, an imperial presidency raises separation of powers concerns and presidents from Washington to present time have, at times, overreached their Constitutional bounds. While the examples above justify concern over the use of broad executive authority, Congress’ legislative role is just as alarming.
Despite its constitutional supremacy, Congress doesn’t always safeguard civil liberties. Remember it was Congress that passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in the 1790s. It was Congress that imposed the gag rule in the 1830s to stop.