America should worry about lost democracy at home

Greg Nash
Clouds gather behind the White House in this April 22, 2022, photo. Growing presidential authority and congressional gridlock are changing the dynamics of governing in Washington, D.C.

For more than a century, the United States has gradually surrendered its constitutional democracy — which emphasizes the separation of powers and the glorification of liberty — to a monarch-like administration that wields arguably more unchecked authority than the monarch who provoked the American Revolution, King George III.

U.S. presidents utilize their powers unilaterally by initiating war; detaining individuals indefinitely without trial; making or breaking treaties; legislating through executive orders or rules-making; surveilling the “not-yet-guilty” citizenry without warrants; operating a secret government; and diverting appropriated funds for purposes not authorized by Congress.

The apex of presidential power is the unreviewable authority to act as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner who can strike any target based on secret, unverified speculation that the target is, or will become, an imminent threat to national security. It is unclear how many assassinations may have been justified by this authority, because state secrets shield them. Leaks to journalists and information from government personnel account for what we do know. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, for example, justified presidential assassination authority in a 2012 speech at Northwestern University by using a flimsy constitutional due process test that was designed to prevent faulty Social Security benefit decisions, not unlawful executions.

Such presidential orders are intended to remain veiled forever, from Congress, the judiciary and the American people. This power flips on its head the Russian proverb that President Ronald Reagan made known to Americans: “Trust, but verify.” The Church Committee — a 1975 Senate committee that investigated alleged abuses of power by intelligence agencies — found CIA involvement in plots to kill Fidel Castro and four other foreign leaders. Though it could not confirm that any president sanctioned the plots, the committee’s findings do challenge our faith that assassinations are an isolated occurrence. Since 1981, assassinations are expressly prohibited by Executive Order 12333: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”  

The president may have unilateral authority, but Congress possesses a comparable degree of power — so much so that it has contributed to the demise of democracy in the legislative branch. With the ascent of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1993, the leadership of Congress has acquired decisive authority. Rank-and-file committee and subcommittee chairmanships act like extras in a Cecile B. deMille film.

The House speaker determines committee membership, committee hearings, floor votes and legislative details; the majority leader has comparable authority in the Senate. Often, members of Congress get 2,000-page appropriations bills a few days before a vote, giving them no time to review them. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared about the Affordable Care Act in 2010 (albeit in a speech to the National Association of Counties’ legislative conference, but applicable nonetheless): “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it.”   

In any case, what members of Congress may lack in expertise to get things done, they more than make up for in fundraising prowess, especially their leaders. Congressional leaders often sideline the rank-and-file members, making it difficult for them to develop the professional and political prowess that might make them capable of questioning the leader’s agenda. And so, they remain “babes in the woods” in the executive branch’s eyes.

Consider this astounding congressional abdication: The executive branch spent more than $300 million a day, every day, for 20 years (more than $2 trillion overall) on a war in Afghanistan that resulted in the return of a possibly more reprehensible Taliban. But no congressional oversight hearing challenged the executive branch’s Pollyannaish assumptions about the war. In the “Afghanistan Papers,” the Washington Post noted that the executive branch knew it was on a treadmill all those years, but it regularly declared progress toward its end goal.

The separation of powers in the Constitution is meant to safeguard the American people against tyranny. The dissolution of this separation, in favor of one branch’s domination, has fueled a multitrillion-dollar government Leviathan, which is making “liberty” the exception and “government coercion” the norm. The purpose of having separation of powers is to prevent autocracy by demanding agreement from contending constituencies before taking action. With all their partisan squabbling, it’s no wonder that Congress’s productivity is down (though bills that do pass are more comprehensive these days). Sometimes deadlock can be circumvented by the executive’s unchallenged authority. It should come as no surprise, then, that in recent years the president, through executive orders and congressionally granted regulatory power, has legislated substantially more than Congress.

In short, the United States can be myopic in its preoccupation with democracy abroad but naive to democracy’s demise at home. In opening the Dec. 10, 2021, Summit for Democracy, President Biden called the protection of democracy “the defining challenge of our time.” But the greatest threat to democracy may not be authoritarian Russia or China but America’s failure to set an example to which the wise and honorable can aspire. 

Our leaders should remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson in his “Letters and Social Aims” — “Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary” — which are often quoted more simply as: “Your actions speak so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying.”

Armstrong Williams (@ARightSide) is the owner and manager of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the Year. He is the author of “Reawakening Virtues.”

Tags Congressional oversight Constitution Democracy Eric Holder George III Newt Gingrich presidential acts Ronald Reagan Separation of powers

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