Americans have long been skeptical of monarchs. We still celebrate July 4 each year, marking the adoption of the Declaration of Independence which catalogued our grievances against Britain’s King George III. We celebrate George Washington precisely because he chose to be a president who retired after two terms rather than a king. Presidents throughout our history who were seen as overstepping the bounds of office have been compared to kings, and not in a positive way.
This national trait of ours is a healthy one. As Ronald Reagan said of freedom, “It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation.”
Our republican form of government requires the engagement of its citizens. Further, it separates powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches and expects each to guard those powers from the others.
Nevertheless, the presidency has clearly accumulated great power of which the kings and queens of old could scarcely dream.
In a spirit not of partisanship but of concern for our form of government, I offer some examples where recent presidencies surpassed their authority. Even if you or I agree with the goal, we should beware executive overreach.
Let’s start with the Biden Administration. Under President Biden, the Department of Homeland Security has ruled that large swathes of the illegal immigrant population should not be eligible for removal from our country. Of course, we have seen the immediate consequences of this legally unsupportable position: much more illegal immigration.
But it also damages the rule of law in the long term. Congress writes immigration laws. Several presidents have sought bills to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants, but they have not passed Congress. President Biden’s decision amounts to amnesty, but it is a decision he is not free to make.
His recent order canceling student loan debt at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars will likely be challenged in the courts. Its foundation in emergency authority is constitutionally dubious.
During President Trump’s Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) unilaterally issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions in September 2020. Congress had previously passed a set of protections from eviction during the coronavirus pandemic in the CARES Act. The eviction limits expired, so the CDC cited a vague law allowing its director to take “measures to prevent such spread of the diseases as he/she deems reasonably necessary” to issue its own moratorium.
The CDC continued to extend the moratorium under President Biden until the Supreme Court eventually blocked its enforcement.
President Obama’s time in office was characterized by aggressive efforts to push the envelope of his legal authority. He entered the Paris climate agreement without seeking Senate approval as a treaty. His Administration issued guidance documents that sought to evade the steps for rulemaking required by law. Just this year, the Supreme Court found in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the Obama EPA tried to usurp authority that did not belong to it in the regulation of greenhouse gases.
President George W. Bush’s time in office was consumed by the response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but national security does not justify acting outside the law. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) set rules for reviewing requests by intelligence agencies to keep track of suspects. I believe the Bush Administration went beyond the rules to allow the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on suspects, including Americans, without a warrant.
Preventing presidents from overreaching their authority can be difficult. One may sympathize with the president’s goals or not want to side with the president’s opponents. Nevertheless, keeping our republic requires vigilance against presidents of any party acting outside their legal and constitutional limits.
As a Member of Congress, I have sought to keep presidents within the law. Under Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden, I have called for the review and repeal of the authorization of use of military force in Iraq to prevent it from being used for unrelated purposes. I have been an outspoken critic of the FISA court process.
Further, I have spoken out against regulations that do not follow the proper rulemaking process, and have supported legislation to keep the president, whoever he or she is, within the limits of their office.
A president is not a king, no matter how well-meaning he is. All citizens should seek to keep it that way.