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The limitations of executive power | Rich Elfers' Politics in Focus
Government leaders are often criticized for the wrong reasons. Presidents, whether they are Republican or Democrat, are sometimes blamed for things that are beyond their control. Likewise, city mayors are blamed despite their lack of power to vote on issues that come before the council. This became obvious to me based upon the reactions of citizens to events while I was on the Enumclaw City Council. Part of this problem is that many people do not understand how government works.
All elected government officials, whether they are the president of the United States or your local mayor in the strong mayor-council type of government, have very clear constraints placed upon them by the law. It is part of the checks and balances that have filtered down from the Constitution and from our history.
Government is designed to be convoluted and inefficient. There are several reasons for this: first, the longer something takes, the more likely all the voices of those concerned with new legislation have to get their perspectives heard. This tends to make the law better thought out, reflecting the concerns of a broader electorate.
A second reason for the lawmaking process to be so complex is to avoid abuse by a few powerful individuals. There are many legal restraints put upon any elected official that limit his ability to bring about rapid change to a government. Those constraints on the elected official’s power are meant to curb individuals using government power for their own ends.
All presidents and government leaders have the power to persuade and influence thinking but, in order for a president to create jobs, for example, he needs the support of Congress. No president, whether Democrat or Republican, can arbitrarily mandate the creation of jobs. Laws have to be passed and money found to pay for them. Presidents are often blamed for things over which they have little control. Let me quickly state I am not taking sides in the current election.
If Congress is made up of members of a different party to the president, it is even more difficult to get laws passed to bring about change. In recent times, the opposing party doesn’t really want the president to be successful because they want a member of their party to become president. Making the opposite party’s president look bad becomes part of their job description, especially in an election year.
Mayors are also constrained in what they can do. For example, the mayor of Enumclaw fired a police lieutenant for insubordination. This process took about a year and a half from start to finish. The administration just couldn’t fire the officer outright because police and fire employees are under what is called a protected class. The officer had the right to appeal to the Civil Service Commission, which he did.
Finally, the mayor’s decision was upheld. Had the commission ruled in the officer’s favor, the city administration would have had to rehire that individual with back pay and with all the bad feelings that had been generated both in the police department and with that police officer. No wonder the city’s attorney warned of chaos if the decision to fire the police officer was overturned!
This issue is still not finished because the terminated police officer has stated he plans to appeal the decision to the court. This case could take years more, just to fire one employee. It’s a very arduous process.
It takes elected officials with high integrity to stay the course on these termination issues. No wonder some government officials sometimes just ignore bad behavior or find other ways to rid themselves of poorly-performing personnel. Doing this is cheaper and easier than going through multiple legal steps, both financial and political, and requires much less time.
Being a government official at any level is a difficult job. There are many legal constraints put upon them that limit their ability to bring about change, even for the public’s good. It can be very frustrating.
Remember this the next time you criticize a sitting president for not doing enough to create jobs, or blame a mayor for something that is beyond his power to fix. All elected officials are under a great many constraints when they make decisions. Ignorance of these restrictions gives constituents a skewed understanding of the government process.