With July 4 approaching, America seems to be facing an identity crisis about how our democracy is designed to work. In that regard, let me ask two questions.
First, when was the last time you read the Declaration of Independence, the July 4 document? It’s a good read. It has a great opening, then a series of rather significant accusations. The accusations, called usurpations in the document, were directed at the behavior of King George III of England. Reading it, you realize that we did not rebel against England — we rebelled against the king and his powers. They swore never to have anyone with those powers governing in or over America.
Right after the American Revolution, there were some people who wanted George Washington to declare himself king. Actually, the Europeans were astonished that he didn’t do just that; they could hardly believe that the general who had won the war did not want the power and, instead, relinquished all authority. That had never happened before in human history.
Second question: Who was the first President of the United States? It was George Washington, of course, you say. No, it was Samuel Huntington of Connecticut, the first president of the “United States in Congress, Assembled” under the Articles of Confederation, America’s first national governmental organizing document.
When was the last time you read the Articles of Confederation? It, too, is a good read. The Founding Fathers wanted to have nothing to do with a chief executive. Each state was to have the rights of a “country,” and the Articles provided how these separate states would cooperate for their mutual benefit, through Congress. Congress would make all “national” decisions.
The overwhelming opinion was that the Revolutionary War was fought to get rid of having an all-powerful ruler. So ingrained was this idea that there should be no supreme ruler that the Founders created the Articles of Confederation without one. The people would rule.
Unfortunately, as it turned out, that was no way to run a country. The Federalist movement resulted in the creation of our Constitution, primarily modeled after Connecticut’s state constitution. It had become clear that there was a need for an executive branch whose fundamental purpose was to administer the ongoing governmental functions, functions which were to be delineated by Congress. Said another way, the executive branch was to carry out the assignments which Congress gave it to do. Even the Federalists believed that the main power should remain with Congress.
The president was to be commander in chief, but he or she could not declare war, the most significant responsibility of the government at the time; only Congress could declare war. The president could negotiate treaties, but the Senate had to approve them. The president could nominate high-level government officials and judges, but the Senate had to approve them as well. The president was not entitled to tell Congress what it could or could not do. Instead, Congress could — had to — tell the president what to do. The State of the Union report by the president was intended to be a progress report, not a political address.
Over almost two and a half centuries, things have changed. Presidents have taken on great powers, some granted by Congress as stipulated in the Constitution, others by bully precedent. Over time, the Office of the President (unlike Washington’s idea of a low-key chief executive) has become a symbol of our national will and the leader (and controller) of his party. With that, the public has “granted” the president far more powers than did the Constitution.
We now have doubts about who is in charge of our government. The press keeps pounding the idea that Congress is dysfunctional — even when it is effective. The public says it is too slow — but it’s a deliberative body by design. Our schools don’t teach civics anymore. Few people understand how our government actually works. Even our members of Congress refer to Congress as a co-equal branch of government — yet, as conservative historian and columnist Jay Cost entitled a 2019 column in the National Review, “Congress is Supreme.”
A representative form of government functions properly by creating consensus based on debate, deliberation and compromise. This “committee” concept is baked into almost every part of American life, from local school boards to corporate boards of directors. We are a country of laws. Congress makes the laws; the president administers them.
We do not have “co-equal” branches of government. Congress is the government. We have three branches with separate powers and separate responsibilities. But the original design was to have Congress set the agenda and to have the executive branch effectively, efficiently carry out those orders. The executive — like a company’s CEO — can propose policies and plans. The Constitution says that “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient,” but Congress — like a company’s board of directors — has the final say on big issues.
Although Alexander Hamilton wanted “energy in the executive,” the Founders — even the Federalists and all the states voting for the Constitution — rejected the concept of a dominant, powerful leader.
On this July 4, we should dedicate ourselves to relearning the brilliant principles upon which this country was founded.
Lucius Riccio is a lecturer in discipline at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where he teaches the application of analytics to the management of public-sector and not-for-profit organizations. After receiving a Ph.D. in engineering from Lehigh University, he has spent most of his career in the public sector working on issues ranging from criminal justice to waste disposal and the environment, to transportation and infrastructure, and in positions ranging from the staff of the President’s Commission on Police Productivity to Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation.