What do voters want to know about the November elections? This was my question to a retired political science teacher friend recently (I will be teaching a Green River College continuing education course on the 2016 elections next week and was looking for ideas). His response was, “What do voters need to know about what the Constitution actually says about the powers of the president and Congress?”
Most Americans do not know what powers Congress has versus what powers the president has.
It was thought when the Constitution was created in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia that Congress would be the dominant power of the three branches. As a result, Congressional power was far more clearly defined and delineated with 18 delegated powers and 8 powers denied to Congress in Article I section 8.
Examples of delegated powers are to “lay and collect Taxes…to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States…to borrow Money… to coin money…to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts…to declare War….”
Examples of powers denied to Congress are the ability to suspend the writ of habeas corpus (except in cases of rebellion), to tax state exports to other states and to grant titles of nobility.
The powers of the president are much less defined in Article II of the Constitution: “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy… and of the Militia of the several States…. He shall have the Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur, and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors…Judges of the supreme Court…(and) to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate….”
As you can see, the power of the presidency as set forth in the Constitution is much more limited and less delineated than that of Congress. Through the years, proud and powerful presidents like Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt have expanded on those undefined powers. As a result, presidents have pushed those boundaries and set important precedents that continue down to our own time.
When we hear presidential candidates promise to set up a fence along the U.S. Mexican border and have the Mexicans pay for it, to limit immigration and deport undocumented immigrants, to impose taxes on some imports, to give free college education to Americans, to provide massive investment for solar power in Arizona, to create “a political revolution” to end income inequality in this nation, and even to force Nabisco to make Oreos in the United States instead of overseas, we should be educated enough in the Constitution to know presidential limits.
American voters should compare Articles I and II of the U.S. Constitution. If U.S. citizens did that they would soon realize that most campaign promises have no basis in the Constitution and should be taken for what they really are: falsehoods, and/or candidate ignorance of what powers presidents actually have. For presidential candidates, politics and hope trump (no pun intended) law and reality.
The ancient Israelites had a requirement for their kings to hand copy the law (the first five books of the Bible) as part of their duties as a monarch (Deuteronomy 17:18). There should be the same kind of requirement for those in public office.
Every president should have to hand copy the U.S. Constitution so they actually know what it says.
My political science friend was right, it is more important to teach voters what they need to know rather than what they want to know about how our government actually works. Constitutional ignorance only serves to allow demagogues to rise; it does not make for good government.