Three weeks into Trump’s presidency and the country is reeling. The new president has been working feverishly to make change, mostly through executive orders. Some have been to undo the work of Obama, while others have chartered course for a new direction. Because of the protests, most of the focus has been on the constitutionality of the executive order banning travel, temporarily, from seven majority Muslim countries. I’d like to focus on the bigger issue; federal government cannibalizing the power of ‘the people’ and why we continue to allow it. The two biggest methods of increasing federal power has been adding new cabinet departments and presidential executive orders.
Executive orders, especially the controversial ones, get all of the attention. Some have had good outcomes. The emancipation proclamation was an executive order. Truman desegregated the military and Eisenhower desegregated public schools via executive order. Others were bad. FDR forced citizens to sell their gold to the US Treasury and interned German, Italian and Japanese Americans via executive order. While executive orders can be too extreme, they can be struck down. The bigger problem is increasing the size and scope of cabinet-level departments.
George Washington had four cabinet posts: State, Treasury, War (now Defense) and Attorney General. The country hummed along for 100 years adding only the Department of the Interior and a few amendments. Then, in 1903, Teddy Roosevelt needed to regulate big businesses during the industrial revolution so the Department of Commerce and Labor was created. This was the start of a snowball which hasn’t stopped growing.
Just ten years later, while Wilson was being inaugurated, Taft split Commerce and Labor into two departments. Wilson went on to impose tariffs, tried to privatize all banks, leading to the compromise of the Federal Reserve, and pushed an amendment to implement an income tax after the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional.
FDR had more time than any other president and he certainly put it to use. He instilled more banking regulations, established the SEC, the FDIC and the Social Security System. Under the new deal, he created works programs, issued loans and paid farmers not to plant crops. The country saw the largest shift of power to the executive branch under FDR. To date he has issued over 25% of all presidential executive orders.
Eisenhower created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It later grew to two department; HHS and Education. LBJ added HUD and Transportation as part of his ‘Great Society’. Nixon, through executive order, added the EPA. Reagan added the VA and George W. Bush added Homeland, which includes over 100 agencies.
So, why the focus on the cabinets? The president is the CEO of the federal government and an executive order is simply a directive given by the CEO to the agencies he oversees. Therefore, when we give the executive branch the power to regulate something, it has greater implications. If education, for instance, was handled solely by the states, the president could not issue an executive order concerning bathrooms in schools. Give him a Department of Labor, and it is now under his jurisdiction. The same goes for banking and commerce, labor and overtime pay, homeland and terror suspect detainment.
Many will say that these departments were needed. They make fun of conservatives who talk about eliminating some of them. But be honest, do you believe that students were failing until 1953 or that the only way to keep America safe was to create a new department with over 100 agencies? Do we need an entire department to ‘promote job creation’ or to ‘establish wage standards’? A better questions may be are the schools, housing, and standards of living better because of these departments?
Each of these cabinets also brings with it billions in tax costs, thousands of employees and massive regulations. It also brings more power under the umbrella of the federal government. Even if you believe the president ‘means well’, it is still dangerous. Every president had more power at the end of his presidency than at the beginning and he never gives that power back. The tendency has been to give the president more leeway when your guy is in power. But if you don’t stop your guy from overreaching because you like the direction he’s going, remember he won’t be in office forever. You may find yourself complaining about the amount of power a president you dislike has and worrying about how he’ll use it. When this happens ask yourself, “How did he get that power?”