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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Unitary theory across the pond....

The news this evening is about the growing confrontation between the White House and Congress over the prerogatives of presidential power. The issue takes the form of controversy over the firing of eight US Attorneys last December, and that is getting spun all sorts of ways depending on which side of the partisan grade you happen to be standing. But underlying all this is a long-overdue correction to the theory of the unitary executive.

Growing out of an obsession with the need for strong leadership that has been fostered by economic crises and wars during the 20th century, this theory is actually an interpretation of our constitutional system that has relatively weak foundations. I happen to be of the school of thought that the presidency was never intended to be as powerful as we have made it. The proffered theory itself is the product of rationalizations and reforms that date back to the end of the 19th-century. It has been articulated and pursued to the point of becoming accepted doctrine. Every so often something happens (e.g., Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-contra, and now the War on Terror) that leads to a temporary pullback, usually in the form of a congressional reassertion of its constitutional authority. The only problem is, the wisdom of limiting presidential authority by undoing the unitary executive theory rarely takes root and we find ourselves repeating some fundamental and costly errors.

Interestingly, the theory of the unitary executive has now spread across the pond. Perhaps it started with Thatcher, whose efforts to shrink government ironically required the strengthening of central authority within the cabinet structure of British government. There is no doubt, however, that the unitary executive idea drives the Blair/Brown government that has now been in place for nearly a decade. The transformation of British government along strong presidential lines is becoming increasingly obvious as attention turns to the leadership of Gordon Brown who is now a longest-serving chancellor in UK history. In an interview with the Financial Times published this morning (also see here), Lord Andrew Turnbull, a former top level civil servant (as in Sir Humphrey of Yes, Minister), spoke of Brown's "Stalinist ruthlessness" in his leadership of government. Listening to the BBC 4's Today show this morning, I was struck by the similarities between the leadership philosophies of both the Labour government and the Bush administration....


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