History shows us government expands in a crisis, then stays that way

Written by Rick B. Larsen

April 10, 2020

Originally published by The American Conservative.

The COVID-19 crisis offers unprecedented insight into the delicate balance between free market solutions and government overreach. We see it today in the admittedly tricky balance between personal freedom, public health and economic survival. But the real underlying problem may be more significant than it appears.

Alexander Hamilton repeatedly warned against the reactive ingredients of populist sentiment during times of crisis and political ambition. He said when people are in crisis, they will allow – perhaps demand – expanded government. And government will gladly respond.

The problem is, government rarely contracts once the crisis is over.

Nowhere is this concern more pronounced – and more demonstrably imbalanced – than in the office of the presidency. And it did not begin with Donald Trump.

If you sense an unsettling partisan quality to the federal government’s response to the current crisis; if your mind is boggled at the gamesmanship occurring while lives and economies are at risk; if Congress seems unusually hyperpartisan and unaccountably mired in turmoil while states seem to be competing for resources on political grounds; and if it all seemingly enables the president to act autonomously – even competitively, trust your senses. And look to history to understand.

President Woodrow Wilson superseded Congress and led the U.S. into World War I. The Great Depression and World War II, combined with a Democratic majority, enabled FDR to enact temporary programs which became the basis of today’s welfare state. As his programs expanded from emergency aid to entitlement, today they absorb more than 60% of the federal budget and – many experts say – have created disincentives that actually increase dependency.

Truman sent troops to Korea without the consent of Congress and assumed control over the armed forces by establishing the Department of Defense and CIA. In 1978, FISA courts were created. In 2001, President George W. Bush, with the justification of a crisis, used them to trample personal privacy after 9/11, and in 2016 the Obama Justice Department used the court as a political mechanism.  Those expanded rules are still in place today.

In his book The Lost Soul of the American Presidency, Stephen Knott explores the notion that George Washington’s nonpartisan presidency has not survived, concluding that “the American president was intended, at least in part, to serve as the nation’s chief of state, as its symbolic head, not a partisan leader.”

Hamilton and Washington embraced a similar constitutional view of government and a presidency that delivered stability – even calm – to the governed. They agreed that a president should focus on the interests of the nation – not majority-party advantage.

It is a civics debate we have pushed to the very back of the intellectual shelf. Could it be true – that the president was never intended to be the head of a political party or ideology?

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. popularized the concept of the “imperial presidency” during the Nixon administration, but it goes back much further. And examples abound of presidential decisions seemingly justified by crisis that still impact the nation today.

The enlargement of presidential powers has changed the status of the American president. “Leader of the free world” and “party leader” are both historically recent designations that have shifted the roles of Congress, the judiciary and even states under concepts of federalism. It has contributed to a change in politics and a divisive, winner-take-all mentality. Further, the emergence of the president as “campaigner in chief” virtually eliminates the ability of a president to respond in nonpartisan terms and creates a quadrennial political split in our nation that never seems to heal.

At issue is not the need for presidential leadership in times of crisis; it is the pattern of assumed power that is never fully annulled when the crisis ends. It is the partisan positioning that is perceived to be embedded in every statement – every decision – by parties determined to benefit politically.

We should take a moment and recognize our vulnerabilities as citizens in times of crisis – vulnerabilities that political demagogues know how to exploit. Further, in an election year, we should be awake to the notion that our inspired form of government may be fundamentally misaligned with its founding principles.

When partisan politics eclipse the sacred obligation of those entrusted with power; when presidents speak as the head of a party rather than the head of a nation – we no longer benefit from a Congress sworn to balance “ambition against ambition” via a vigorous House and a measured Senate, under the constitutional scrutiny of a dispassionate judiciary and exercising only powers that are, as per the Constitution, “few and defined.”

Passion during a crisis is not political – it is human nature. However, exploitation of a crisis is political, and we should be aware of an existing structural imbalance at the federal level that enables the leveraging of passion and avoidance of responsibility.

What is needed today are leaders committed to the principles of liberty and a version of power described in the Constitution – representatives who possess a quixotic affection for freedom and who will lead with an insistence that the people and nation come first.  Then the balance of power can be set right.

Then, and only then, would we see Congress capably resume its intended responsibilities: balance and oversight. Then, states would be newly empowered to make local, independent decisions – free from the threat of political retribution.  Then, we would see a return to a more dignified office of the president, elevated to protect the unity and welfare of a nation – prioritized above party.

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