How We Broke the Presidency
America’s ballooning branch of government
President of the United States.
Chief executive of the federal government.
Commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
The most powerful job in the world, right?
Well, actually … the gig hasn’t always been like this.
In fact, the first person who ever had it wanted to quit … out of boredom.
And if you’ve never heard that story about George Washington it’s because … that’s not who we’re talking about.
America, real talk: We kinda screwed George Washington.
You see, the holiday we celebrate every February as Presidents’ Day — is … not an actual thing.i
(Just one more example of how we’re being manipulated by Big Mattress.)
The actual holiday is Washington’s birthday, which may seem like a technicality, but … how would you feel if you were suddenly told you had to share your birthday party with 44 other dudes?
And here’s the weird thing about “Presidents’ Day”: It’s not just that we’re shafting the father of our country, it’s that celebrating all these guys together doesn’t really make sense … because they didn’t really have the same job.
The presidency is vastly different today than it was in the past. We’ve changed it a lot over the years.
In the earliest days of the country, before we had even written the Constitution, we had a role called “president,” … but the job was literally handling paperwork for the Continental Congress.
The first person who held it, John Hanson, described the position as “irksome” and considered resigning within his first weekii — which is maybe a thing that more of them should consider.
And even when the Constitution was being written, several Founding Fathers were still not convinced we even needed a president.
You probably know Patrick Henry, for example, as the guy who said: “Give me liberty or give me death.” But he was also the guy who said … well, we don’t actually know what he said, because he went on such a rant that the stenographer just shorthanded it as: “Mr. Henry warned of ‘the president’s enslaving America.’”iii A little extreme, but you get the idea.
The Founders were building a free country and all this ‘president’ stuff kinda sounded like … a king — which is why they cycled through a bunch of other ideas at first.
They considered having the president chosen by Congress.
They considered having the president serve one seven-year term.
They even considered … having no president at all, and having the executive branch run by a multi-member council.iv Because when you want something done in Washington … you look for a committee.
But even after all that fine-tuning, we’ve still had to make a number of changes over the years.
For our first several elections, the guy who came in second for president … got to be vice president. And well, … you can imagine how that could’ve gone wrong. So, we changed it.v
Initially, there were no term limits on the presidency. But then FDR was president for like 80 years. So, we changed it.vi
There was even a time when a president might ride out into the field to lead the military. Now sure, that may have made sense when George Washington was putting down the Whiskey Rebellion. And there were some other presidents who could’ve probably pulled it off too.
But James Madison also turned up on a battlefield during the War of 1812.vii
100-pound, 5-foot-nothing James Madison.
So, yeah, we changed that too.
But while there have been lots of helpful — or at least harmless — tweaks over the years, there have also been some that have transformed the office.
During the 20th century, the executive branch got way, way bigger. And became way more powerful. 100 years ago, the executive branchviii had 10 cabinet departments and 19 other agencies; today it has 15 cabinet departments, 120 executive agencies, and 60 other independent entities .ix
Now, whether you think the government should be bigger or smaller isn’t really the point. The point is that along the way we’ve changed the very principles by which the federal government was intended to operate.
Here’s what happened: As the executive branch grew, the president’s employees found plenty of new rules they wanted to make. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but — actually, hold on, there’s one thing wrong with that. If you remember your elementary school civics, it’s Congress that gets to make laws, not the executive branch.
So, we tried to work out an accommodation. The experts in the executive branch who worked for the president could create their own rules, but Congress would have the power to reject them.
Couple of problems though: (1) There became so many rules that Congress simply couldn’t handle the volume and; (2) members of Congress started deciding it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to let someone else take the heat for making tough decisions.
The result: Today, we live in a country where most of the laws that control your life … aren’t actually voted on by the people you elect to have that power.
For example, the 112th Congress passed 284 laws. During the same two-year period, the number of new rules that came out of the executive branch … was over 7,500.x In other words, the branch of government, the Founding Fathers charged with writing the laws … wrote less than 4% of them. And the one they feared becoming too powerful, wrote over 96% of them.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Congress could take back its power anytime if it wants. But they probably won’t do it unless the voters push them to.
Until then … 96% of the laws are coming not from our elected lawmakers but from the president and his unelected subordinates. We can’t say for sure what the Founding Fathers would call that, but it probably rhymes with … king.
- "There Is No Federal Presidents' Day Holiday" — Government Executive
- A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature, 1635-1789 (Papenfuse, Day, Jordan, Stiverson)
- Debates and Other Proceedings of the Convention of Virginia (David Robertson), pg. 52 — National Archives
- The Presidency in the Constitutional Convention (R. Gordon Hoxie) — Presidential Studies Quarterly
- The Twelfth Amendment — National Constitution Center
- The Twenty-Second Amendment — National Constitution Center
- Flight of the Madisons — The White House Historical Association
- Thirty-Eighth Annual Report — U.S. Civil Service Commission, 1921
- "How to Strengthen Congress" (Kevin R. Kosar) — National Affairs
- Rulemaking as Legislating (Kathryn A. Watts) — Georgetown Law Journal
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- Government Executive
"There Is No Federal Presidents' Day Holiday"
- A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature, 1635-1789
(Papenfuse, Day, Jordan, Stiverson)
- National Archives
Debates and Other Proceedings of the Convention of Virginia (David Robertson), pg. 52
- Presidential Studies Quarterly
The Presidency in the Constitutional Convention (R. Gordon Hoxie)
- National Constitution Center
The Twelfth Amendment
- National Constitution Center
The Twenty-Second Amendment
- The White House Historical Association
Flight of the Madisons
- U.S. Civil Service Commission, 1921
Thirty-Eighth Annual Report
- National Affairs
"How to Strengthen Congress" (Kevin R. Kosar)
- Georgetown Law Journal
Rulemaking as Legislating (Kathryn A. Watts)
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “The President Was Never Intended to be the Most Powerful Part of the Government” (Washington Post)
- “Presidential Power Surges” (Harvard Law Bulletin)
- “How We Feel About Executive Power … Depends on Who’s President” (Reason)
- “Is the Presidency Too Powerful?” (National Constitution Center)
- “How to Strengthen Congress” (National Affairs)
- “What if We Wrote the Constitution Today?” (The Atlantic)
- The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, by Gene Healy
- The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President, by Aaron David Miller
- The Unelected: How an Unaccountable Elite is Governing America, by James R. Copland