Powers of the President of the United States

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The President of the United States has numerous powers, including those explicitly granted by Article II of the Constitution, implied powers, powers granted by Acts of Congress, and enormous influence and soft power from his position as leader of the United States.

The Constitution explicitly assigns to the President the power to sign or veto legislation, command the armed forces, ask for the written opinion of his Cabinet, convene or adjourn Congress, grant reprieves and pardons, and receive ambassadors. With the approval of two-thirds and one-half of the House and Senate respectively, the President may make treaties and appoint Article III judges and some executive branch officers, and during the recess of the Senate, appoint officers for a temporary period of time.

Executive powers[edit]

Within the executive branch itself, the President (if in office) has broad powers to manage national affairs and the workings of the federal government. The President can issue rules, regulations, and instructions called executive orders, which have the binding force of law upon federal agencies but do not require congressional approval.

According to the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, the president is also responsible for preparing the Budget of the United States, although the Congress must approve it.[1] The Office of Management and Budget assists the President with the preparation of the budget. In the past (but no longer), the President was able to impound funds as he saw fit. The power was available to all presidents and was regarded as a power inherent to the office. The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 was passed in response to large scale exercise of the power by President Nixon. This act also created the Congressional Budget Office as a legislative counterpoint to the Office of Management and Budget.

As Commander in Chief of the armed forces of the United States, the president may also call into federal service the state units of the National Guard. In times of war or national emergency, the Congress may grant the president even broader powers to manage the national economy and protect the security of the United States, but these are not powers granted by the Constitution to the president. During the Vietnam War in 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Act to severely limit the ability of the President to conduct warfare without Congressional approval. Congress has the power to declare the war (Article 1, sec 8), but if the president needs to send the troops to other countries for hostile reasons, he will need congressional confirmation within 48 hours. For any time beyond 60 days, further congressional approval will be required.

Powers related to Legislation[edit]

The President has several options when a bill arrives on his desk from Congress:

If he agrees with the bill, then it is signed into law within ten days of receipt. If the president opposes the bill, he can veto it and return the legislation to Congress with a veto message offering suggested changes. Presidents must approve all of a bill or none of it; they do not have the ability to veto only selected parts. If the Congress is still in session for ten business days after the president receives the bill, the legislation will become a law without the president's signature. But, if Congress adjourns within the ten business days of giving the bill to the President, the bill dies. If the president does this to a bill, Congress can do nothing to override the president. This is called a pocket veto. In 1996, Congress gave President Bill Clinton a line-item veto over parts of a bill that require spending federal funds. The Supreme Court ruled that Clinton's use of the veto against a pork barrel appropriation for New York City was unconstitutional. The Court ruled in Clinton v. New York City that only a constitutional amendment could give the president the line item veto power. The President can also issue a signing statements with a bill that he has signed. In a signing statement, the President may express his opinion on the constitutionality of some provisions of a bill (such as those that intrude on executive power) and declare that those provisions will not be enforced. The Supreme Court has not addressed the use of signing statements by the President. Congress can override vetoes with a two-thirds vote of both chambers, but this process is difficult and relatively rare. The threat of a presidential veto is usually sufficient to force Congress to modify a bill so that the President is willing to sign it.

Much of the legislation dealt with by Congress is drafted at the initiative of the executive branch. In annual and special messages to Congress, the president may propose legislation he believes is necessary. The most important of these is the annual State of the Union address. Before a joint session of Congress, the president outlines the status of the country and his legislative proposals for the upcoming year. If Congress should adjourn without acting on those proposals, the president has the power to call it into special session. But beyond this official role, the president, as head of a political party and as principal executive officer of the United States government, is primarily in a position to influence public opinion and thereby to influence the course of legislation in Congress.

For more details on this topic, see Bully pulpit.

To improve their working relationships with Congress, presidents in recent years have set up an Office of Legislative Affairs. Presidential aides keep abreast of all important legislative activities.

Powers of Appointment[edit]

The President of the United States has several different appointment powers.

Before taking office, the President-elect must appoint more than 6,000 new federal positions.[2] The appointments range from top officials at U.S. government agencies, to the White House Staff, and members of the United States diplomatic corps. Many, but not all, of these positions are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the United States Senate.

The President also has the power to nominate federal judges, including members of the United States Courts of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court. However, these nominations do require Senate confirmation, and this can provide a major stumbling block for Presidents who wish to shape their federal judiciary in a particular ideological stance. The President must appoint judges for the United States District Courts, but he will not often defer to Senatorial courtesy in making these choices.

As head of the executive branch, the President must appoint the top officials for all of the federal agencies. These positions are listed in the Plum Book which outlines more than 7,000 appointive positions in the government. Many of these appointments are made by the President. In the case of ten agencies, the President is free to appoint a new agency head at his pleasure. For example, it is not unusual for the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency or the NASA Administrator to be changed by the President. Other agencies that deal with federal regulation such as the Federal Reserve Board or the Securities and Exchange Commission have set terms that will often outlast the time a President sits in office. For example, the members of the Federal Reserve board serve for twelve years. This is to ensure that these agencies can act independently of political control. The President also appoints members to the boards of directors for government-owned corporations such as Amtrak. The President can also make a recess appointment if a position needs to be filled while Congress is not in session.

In the past, Presidents had the power to appoint all members of the United States civil service. This use of the spoils system allowed Presidents to reward political supporters with jobs. Following the assassination of President James Garfield by Charles J. Guiteau, a disgruntled office seeker, Congress instituted a merit-based civil service in which positions are filled on a nonpartisan basis. The Office of Personnel Management now oversees the staffing of 2.8 million federal jobs in the federal bureaucracy.

The President must also appoint his staff of aides, advisers, and assistants. These individuals are political appointments and are not subject to review by the Senate. All members of the staff serve "at the pleasure of the President.".[3][4] Since 1995, the President has been required to submit an annual report to Congress listing the name and salary of every White House Office employee. The report for 2011 lists 454 employees, and can be viewed on the White House web site[5]

Executive clemency[edit]

Article II of the United States Constitution gives the President the power of clemency. The two most commonly used clemency powers are those of pardon and commutation. A pardon is an official forgiveness for an acknowledged crime. Once a pardon is issued, all punishment for the crime is waived. The person accepting the pardon must, however, acknowledge that the crime did take place.[6] The President maintains the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the United States Department of Justice to review all requests for pardons. Most pardons are issued as oversight of the judicial branch, especially in cases where Federal Sentencing Guidelines are considered too severe for the crime committed. Other pardons have been much more controversial because there was political motivation.

This power can check the legislative and judicial branches by altering punishment for crimes. Presidents can issue blanket amnesty which forgives entire groups of people for a crime. President Jimmy Carter offered amnesty to Vietnam War draftees who fled to Canada. Presidents can also issue temporary suspension of prosecution or punishment in the form of respites. This power is most commonly used to delay federal sentences of execution.

The President can also commute a sentence which, in effect, changes the punishment to time served. While the guilty party may be released from custody or not have to serve out a prison term, all other punishments still apply. President George W. Bush commuted the sentence of White House staffer Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Foreign affairs[edit]

Under the Constitution, the president is the federal official that is primarily responsible for the relations of the United States with foreign nations. The president appoints ambassadors, ministers, and consuls —subject to confirmation by the Senate—and receives foreign ambassadors and other public officials. With the secretary of state, the president manages all official contacts with foreign governments. On occasion, the president may personally participate in summit conferences where heads of state meet for direct consultation. Thus, President Woodrow Wilson headed the American delegation to the Paris conference at the end of World War I; President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Allied leaders during World War II; and every president since then has sat down with world leaders to discuss economic and political issues and to reach agreements.

Through the Department of State and the Department of Defense, the president is responsible for the protection of Americans abroad and of foreign nationals in the United States. The president decides whether to recognize new nations and new governments, and negotiate treaties with other nations, which become binding on the United States when approved by two-thirds of the Senate. The president may also negotiate "executive agreements" with foreign powers that are not subject to Senate confirmation.

Emergency Powers[edit]

Over the years, Presidents have claimed to have emergency powers in times of crisis. These Inherent Powers have been used both at home and overseas. The most common use of emergency powers is to declare a state of emergency which allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to bypass normal administrative and jurisdictional rules. Declarations of emergency can also provide special federal aid such as during the Flood of 1993 along the Mississippi River or in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. President Abraham Lincoln used his emergency powers to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in Maryland during the American Civil War. President Harry Truman was also denied emergency powers by the Court in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer when he tried to nationalize the nation's steel mills.

Executive Privilege[edit]

Executive privilege gives the President the ability to withhold information from the public, Congress, and the courts in matters of national security. George Washington first claimed privilege when Congress requested to see Chief Justice John Jay's notes from an unpopular treaty negotiation with Great Britain. While not enshrined in the Constitution, Washington's action created the precedent for privilege. When Richard Nixon tried to use executive privilege as a reason for not turning over subpoenaed evidence to Congress for the Watergate hearings, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Nixon that privilege did not apply in cases where a President was attempting to avoid criminal prosecution. Later President Bill Clinton lost in federal court when he tried to assert privilege in the Lewinsky affair. The Supreme Court affirmed this in Clinton v. Jones which denied the use of privilege in cases of civil suits as well.

Constraints on Presidential power[edit]

Because of the vast array of presidential roles and responsibilities, coupled with a conspicuous presence on the national and international scene, political analysts have tended to place great emphasis on the president's powers. Some have even spoken of "the imperial presidency," referring to the expanded role of the office that Franklin D. Roosevelt maintained during his term.

President Theodore Roosevelt famously called the presidency a "bully pulpit" from which to raise issues nationally, for when a president raises an issue, it inevitably becomes subject to public debate. A president's power and influence may be limited, but politically the president is certainly the most important power in Washington and, furthermore, is one of the most famous and influential of all Americans.

Though constrained by various other laws passed by Congress, the President's executive branch conducts most foreign policy, and his power to order and direct troops as commander-in-chief is quite significant (the exact limits of what a President can do with the military without Congressional authorization are open to debate).

The Separation of Powers devised by the founding fathers was designed to do one primary thing: to prevent the majority from ruling with an iron fist. Based on their experience, the framers shied away from giving any branch of the new government too much power. The separation of powers provides a system of shared power known as Checks and Balances (see Separation of powers). For example, the President appoints judges and departmental secretaries, but these appointments must be approved by the Senate. The president can veto bills, or deny them. If he does that, the bill is sent back to Congress.

See also[edit]