After the passage of the 16th Amendment, the United States created the first Constitutionally compliant income tax by amending the Constitution. This enabled the creation of the IRS to collect those taxes and (after legislation) the Federal Reserve System of the country which was the first Constitutionally compliant “central” bank. Central is in quotes because it is a system of 12 districts and HQ in DC. That topic is for future writings. This article starts at this point because so many things changed within this latest century of our nearly 243 years, including the power of the Presidents who manage that Federal Reserve System and collect the taxes from all citizens.
At this point, 1913, the US President was seeking a way to participate in a widely unpopular war – World War One. With the exception of the Civil War and the War of 1812, Federal Expenditures did not exceed 3% of gross domestic product (GDP). During Wilson’s presidency, it rose to 20% enabling that administration access to a far larger portion of the economy than ever before. This figure is only exceeded by today’s budgets and has never been appreciably been below 20% in the past 100 years.
It is here that the seeds of an Imperial Presidency were sown.
Let’s come closer to today. In 2016 we all heard so much about “draining the swamp”. A refrain that should be music to any small government ears. But what is “the swamp”? This refers to the bureaucracy of an entire set of government structures that don’t truly report to the President nor Congress. These are the structures created by presidents and Congressional action funded by tax money placed on automatic funding. The ugliness of trying to reign that in is part of what we see with the current imperial president. As a Libertarian, there is nearly zero support that can be given to this occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania but I write this to remind us that the situation has been building for a century and all of his modern predecessors pushed the boundaries of unitary action. And what we see today is the latest push to increase that power. When a new non-libertarian person fills that office, we will see yet an increase in power again. Just read some of the platform speeches of those running for president to see the proof that they will do more to consolidate power, not release it back to the people.
Just as a single example – the Presidential Signing Statements. From the beginning until Ronald Reagan, there were 75 signing statements issued by all the presidents until then. Then Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton created 247 signing statements just through those years! After campaigning on the abuse of signing statements, Obama made 30 of his own and against his own stated philosophy. Do we all remember that he stated, “I have a pen and I have a phone”. In reference to creating signing statements and executive orders.
Just in the recent presidencies we see that abuse of presidential orders: Reagan (381); Bush 41 (166); Clinton (364); Bush (291); Obama (276); Trump (98) … None are as prolific at FDR at 3728 But until 1900, no president (with few exceptions) had used this over 35 times (absent war) …
Visiting 1973 we see the first use of the term Imperial President – coined by Arthur Schlesinger in a book of the same title. His words of the time have ever more resonance today with a strong historic reference.
“The vital difference between the early republic and the Imperial Presidency resides not in what Presidents did but in what Presidents believed they had the inherent right to do… Early Presidents … had legislative majorities … (and) Congress approved their objectives and chose to let them take the lead … In the late twentieth century Presidents made sweeping claims of inherent power, neglected the collection of consent, withheld information ad libitum and went to war against sovereign states.”
And this was stated in 1973! Imagine what could be said about today! The US has military deployments in 177 countries in the world with 40,000 assigned to classified missions.
Before we label any single president we should look at the use of Executive Order, creation of cabinet departments, and the expansion of government to manage more and more of the economy, and military deployments over time. The numbers grow, not shrink. The numbers are not by one of the duopoly parties or the other – they are by members of both as power continues to grow in the executive branch.
One very recent, sad point is the current president declaring that the First Amendment rights of students on campuses needs an executive order. How more clear can it be that the presidency views itself as an imperial leader who must declare rights by executive order that already exist.
Many thanks to the research of Daily Reckoning, ClearNFO (David Brown), ThoughCo, Jospeh Ellis’s book, Founding Brothers, Arthur Schlesinger’s book, The Imperial Presidency, and countless other background reading that helped shape this article.