Telling the Truth


Presidential candidates are scurrying about like squirrels, promising the people lower taxes, health care, repaired Social Security and other sundry and wondrous miracles.

It would be helpful if they would tell the American people the truth for a change: They can’t do dog barf about any of those subjects. What they should be saying is, "I will ask Congress to (whatever)."

The Constitution does not give the president power over any of the topics the candidates like to talk about. The president can’t raise or lower taxes; can’t legislate on any matter, including Social Security and health care; can’t declare war; and can’t make treaties or appoint Supreme Court justices without the advice and consent of the Senate.

The authors of the Constitution had just finished a long and bitter war with Great Britain, whose king they saw as a tyrant. The last thing they were going to do is give kingly powers to their own chief executive.

The duties of the president are simple to state: He can require reports from department heads; he may grant pardons and reprieves; with the advice and consent of the Senate, he can make treaties and appoint ambassadors, consuls, ministers and judges; he can receive ambassadors and other public ministers; he must take care to faithfully execute the laws; and he commissions all U.S. officers. He is the commander in chief of the armed forces. From "time to time," he is to report to Congress on the state of the union.

The last duty to be listed says he may "recommend certain measures" to Congress. Congress, of course, is under no obligation, legal or otherwise, to accept his recommendations or, in fact, to do anything he asks Congress to do. The one exception is that under extraordinary circumstances, he can order Congress to convene.

Thus, in the case of presidential candidates, honesty really would be the best policy. Whatever the candidate hopes to accomplish, he will need the people to pressure Congress. Otherwise, Congress will listen to the lobbyists, who represent the selfish interests of their clients.

Even presidential candidates, however, seem to get a sniff of what they suppose is the power of the presidency and thus go around saying, "I will do this" and "I will do that." They should be saying, "I need your help, first to get elected, and second to pressure Congress to adopt my recommendations. Otherwise it will be business as usual in Washington."

Clearly, the framers of the Constitution intended for Congress to be the most powerful part of the government. The only influence, other than persuasion, the president has is to veto legislation, but here again Congress has the power to override a presidential veto.

Moreover, the president does not have the power to veto only a part of a bill (commonly referred to as the line-item veto). This was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The concept of an imperial president took root in the post-Eisenhower years. Before that, Harry Truman was fond of taking walks in downtown Washington. Franklin Roosevelt, when he was in Warm Springs, Ga., would drive up into the Pine Mountains, pull over to the side and have a picnic on the ground with a few friends.

The Bush presidents, when they traveled, took an entourage that included at least 16 limousines and greatly inconvenienced whomever they were visiting.

Our president is not a king or an emperor. He’s a hired public servant working on a temporary basis. It was no accident when the Founding Fathers decided that the only title a president could claim or deserve was "Mr. President." He is a citizen just like you or me, he puts his pants on just as we do, and he answers the call of nature in the usual manner. As the French essayist Montaigne observed, "No matter how high the throne, the king still sits on his arse." So do all presidents.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.