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Restraining the Imperial Presidency Previous Next
Digital History ID 3354


Over the course of the 20th century, the presidency gradually supplanted Congress as the center of federal power. Presidential authority increased, presidential staffs grew in size, and the executive branch gradually acquired a dominant relationship over Congress.

Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, the president, and not Congress, established the nation's legislative agenda. Increasingly, Congress ceded its budget-making authority to the president. Presidents even found a way to make agreements with foreign nations without congressional approval. After World War II, presidents substituted executive agreements for treaties requiring approval of the Senate. Even more important, presidents gained the power to take military action, despite the fact that Congress is the sole branch of government empowered by the Constitution to declare war.

No president went further than Richard Nixon in concentrating powers in the presidency. He refused to spend funds that Congress had appropriated; he claimed executive privilege against disclosure of information on administration decisions; he refused to allow key decision makers to be questioned before congressional committees; he reorganized the executive branch and broadened the authority of new cabinet positions without congressional approval; and during the Vietnam War, he ordered harbors mined and bombing raids launched without consulting Congress.

Watergate brought a halt to the "imperial presidency" and the growth of presidential power. Over the president's veto, Congress enacted the War Powers Act (1973), which required future presidents to obtain authorization from Congress to engage U.S. forces in foreign combat for more than 90 days. Under the law, a president who orders troops into action abroad must report the reason for this action to Congress within 48 hours.

In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Congress passed a series of laws designed to reform the political process. Disclosures during the Watergate investigations of money-laundering led Congress to provide public financing of presidential elections, public disclosure of sources of funding, limits on private campaign contributions and spending, and to enforce campaign finance laws by an independent Federal Election Commission. To make it easier for the Justice Department to investigate crimes in the executive branch, Congress now requires the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate accusations of illegal activities. To re-assert its budget-making authority, Congress created a Congressional Budget Office and specifically forbade a president to impound funds without its approval. To open government to public scrutiny, Congress opened more committee deliberations and enacted the Freedom of Information Act, which allows the public and press to request the declassification of government documents.

Some of the post-Watergate reforms have not been as effective as reformers anticipated. The War Powers Act has never been invoked. Campaign financing reform has not curbed the ability of special interests to curry favor with politicians or the capacity of the very rich to outspend opponents.

On the other hand, Congress has had somewhat more success in reining in the FBI and the CIA. During the 1970s, congressional investigators discovered that these organizations had, in defiance of federal law, broken into the homes, tapped the phones, and opened the mail of American citizens; illegally infiltrated anti-war groups and black radical organizations; and accumulated dossiers on dissidents, which had been used by presidents for political purposes. Investigators also found that the CIA had been involved in assassination plots against foreign leaders--among them Fidel Castro--and had tested the effects of radiation, electric shock, and drugs (such as LSD) on unsuspecting citizens. In the wake of these investigations, the government severely limited CIA operations in the United States and laid down strict guidelines for FBI activities. To tighten congressional control over the CIA, Congress established a joint committee to supervise its operations.

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