unit 2: the executive branch

Terms in this set (26)

While a few delegates to the Constitutional Convention thought the president should be elected directly by the people, most delegates thought Congress should choose the president.

Alexander Hamilton, however, was convinced that presidents would be too dependent on the legislative branch if they were elected by Congress. He persuaded the rest of the delegates to agree to a compromise solution, the Electoral College.

As a compromise between election by Congress and election by popular vote, Hamilton suggested that the president be elected by a separate body of presidential electors, the Electoral College. Each state would have as many electors as it had senators and representatives in Congress, but members of Congress would be prohibited from being electors.

Every four years, the states would select a group of "enlightened and respectable citizens" to be their electors. The electors in the state would then meet to cast votes for president.

The results would be sent to Congress to be counted. The candidate with the most votes would be president, and the one with the second highest total would be vice president. If no candidate received a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives would choose the president.

This cumbersome system was enshrined in the Constitution and worked for the first two presidential elections, in which George Washington was unanimously elected.

The first problems with the system became apparent in 1796, when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were elected president and vice president. Strangely enough, these two men were political rivals and were in the midst of creating opposing political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

The emergence of the two-party system caused the election process to break down completely in the election of 1800.

In that year, the newly formed Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties each nominated candidates for president and vice president. The Democratic-Republicans were victorious, but their nominees, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, received exactly the same number of electoral votes.

Even though it was obvious that the Democratic-Republicans wanted Jefferson to be president, it took 36 ballots for the House to vote for that outcome.

This debacle led to the passage of the Twelfth Amendment, which requires that electors cast separate ballots for president and vice president.

The modern Electoral College system functions in a different way than the Founding Fathers intended.

Today, each party selects a single candidate for president through a series of state primaries. The parties also choose a slate of presidential electors who have pledged to vote for the party's candidate.

On Election Day, when voters go to the polls and vote for their choice for president, they are technically voting for a slate of electors who are pledged to a particular candidate.

The presidential candidate who receives the majority of votes in a state receives all of that state's electoral votes. (Maine and Nebraska allow proportional distribution of electoral votes, but the states seldom split their electoral votes.) The candidate with the most electoral votes is elected president.
The election of the president coincides with the election of the vice president, who is chosen as a running mate during the election campaign. The main constitutional role of the vice president is to take over the presidency if the president is unable to finish the term.

A vacancy in the presidency can occur in one of four ways: death, disability, impeachment, or resignation. Because the president is the most powerful official in the US government, it is important that the procedures for presidential succession be clearly laid out.

Despite the significance of this issue, the Constitution is somewhat vague on the question of how to fill a vacancy in the presidency. It merely states that the "powers and duties of the office . . . shall devolve on the Vice President."

The first death of a sitting president occurred when William Henry Harrison died in 1841. It was unclear whether Vice President John Tyler should actually become president or just take over the "powers and duties of the office."

Tyler did become president, and this decision set the precedent for similar situations in the future. It was not until the Twenty-Fifth Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1967 that the vice president's succession to the presidency was officially clarified.

The Twenty-Fifth Amendment also covers the issue of presidential disability. If the president cannot carry out his duties, he can declare so in writing and make the vice president "acting president." When President Ronald Reagan underwent surgery in 1985, for example, he made Vice President George H.W. Bush acting president for eight hours.

The vice president and a majority of Congress can also decide that the president is incapacitated and temporarily remove him from office. If the president returns to health, he may resume his office unless the vice president, a majority of the Cabinet, and two-thirds of Congress disagree.

The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 established a line of succession after the vice president. Next in line are the Speaker of the House, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and then the cabinet members in order of the historical creation of their departments.
The ideal size and role of the federal government has remained an important political issue for the entire history of the United States. In general, the trend has moved toward expanding the government's responsibilities. As the role and responsibilities of the government have increased, so too have the powers of the presidency.

The emergence of economic planning represents the clearest example of the growth of governmental responsibility. Historically, many Americans have held suspicions about government interference in the economy. Remember, the colonies declared independence largely because they resented the taxation and trade regulations imposed on them by the king of England. Later, many Americans began to associate economic planning with communism, adding to their suspicion.

Nevertheless, economic planning is one of the essential functions of the US government and has been for many years. The US economy underwent rapid industrialization and growth starting in the late 19th century. The economy became more complex and less predictable, and the laissez-faire ("leave it alone") economic policies of the time proved inadequate to the task of managing the tumultuous new economy.

In the early 20th century, the government began to take a more active role in regulating the economy. President Theodore Roosevelt led an antitrust campaign to reduce the power of monopolistic corporations. In 1914, the Congress created the Federal Reserve System, which is responsible for maintaining favorable monetary and credit conditions.

Economic planning really took off during the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt, elected in 1932, passed a series of economic initiatives known as the New Deal to help the United States emerge from the Depression. The British economist John Maynard Keynes strongly influenced Roosevelt when he argued that government could and should manage the state of the economy through active intervention.
Although the Constitution carefully separates the powers of the federal government, the three branches have often argued over exactly how power should be distributed among them. One frequent area of dispute lies in the claim made by many presidents that the principle of separation of powers entitles the president to resist certain demands by the other two branches. The extent and validity of this right, which is known as executive privilege, has been hotly contested.

George Washington was the first president to invoke executive privilege, a concept not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. The House of Representatives asked Washington to turn over certain documents relating to a recently signed treaty with England. Washington, citing executive privilege, gave the papers to the Senate but not the House, which has no authority over treaties.

Presidential claims of executive privilege have frequently clashed with congressional powers of investigation and oversight. Nevertheless, executive privilege was not fundamentally challenged until 1974, when President Richard Nixon, under investigation for his role in the Watergate scandal, refused to turn incriminating tapes over to a federal court.

The Supreme Court, while upholding the principle of executive privilege, declared that there is no "absolute unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances." The Court held that Nixon's claim of executive privilege was invalid in this case, and it ordered the president to turn over the tapes.

Executive privilege, while an important source of presidential authority, has limits. Even the president does not sit above the rule of law.

The Supreme Court has further ruled that while the president cannot be sued in civil court for his official actions, executive privilege does not apply when the president is under criminal investigation.