Broken Government

Published — December 10, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Controversial assertion of executive power

The Bush administration draws criticism for seeming to seek expansion of presidential powers


The Executive Office of the President and the Bush administration in general have drawn widespread criticism for their push toward a “unitary executive,” a presidency with vastly increased power to interpret and implement the law. The administration’s decision to authorize warrantless wiretapping, its use of signing statements to pick and choose which portions of legislation to execute, its push for unrestricted detention of suspects in the war on terror, and its broad and aggressive assertion of executive privilege all drew bipartisan criticism. Some view the changes as a positive reassertion of executive power that was lost in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal — indeed, as far back as the dawn of the Reagan administration, current Vice President Dick Cheney had pushed incoming Reagan White House Chief of Staff James Baker to “restore power” and authority to the executive branch. Cheney and other adherents of the unitary executive believe that a powerful executive branch is especially important during time of war. Others view it as a dangerous power grab by a president unwilling to be held accountable by the judicial or legislative branches. Either way, with its opposition to both judicial review of its decisions (regarding handling of detainees, for example) and assertions of authority over Congress (as seen through its signing statements and refusal to respond to congressional subpoenas), the Bush administration has pushed executive power to a level unseen for many years. The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment, but in 2006, President Bush defended his decision-making role, noting, “I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.”

Despite congressional and judicial attempts to reign in the unitary executive, the Bush White House has continued to assert its power over Congress and the judiciary. Some have argued that congressional additions to the administration’s original concept of the financial bailout represented an effort to push back against the unitary executive. And many expect Congress will aggressively move to reassert its authority in the early days of an Obama administration.

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