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A Democrat with dictatorial powers

Summary:
Imagine a Democratic president with dictatorial powers. What would a President Sanders or Warren do if there were no restraints on their power? What if they could launch wars without involving Congress? What if they could set tariff rates? What if they could spend money that Congress had refused to appropriate? What if they could declare global warming to be a national emergency, and order US companies to divest from polluting countries?  What if homelessness was declared a national emergency? You might argue that the GOP would never stand for this. But the GOP has forfeited all credibility, as it is refusing to oppose Trump’s claims that he can declare various “national emergencies” and do whatever he wants.  Here’s the NYT, discussing Trump’s recent claim that he can force

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Imagine a Democratic president with dictatorial powers. What would a President Sanders or Warren do if there were no restraints on their power?

What if they could launch wars without involving Congress? What if they could set tariff rates? What if they could spend money that Congress had refused to appropriate? What if they could declare global warming to be a national emergency, and order US companies to divest from polluting countries?  What if homelessness was declared a national emergency?

You might argue that the GOP would never stand for this. But the GOP has forfeited all credibility, as it is refusing to oppose Trump’s claims that he can declare various “national emergencies” and do whatever he wants.  Here’s the NYT, discussing Trump’s recent claim that he can force companies to leave China:

“In the 20 years I’ve been doing this, I have not seen anything where there was not a national security threat,” said Mr. Smith, who until last year was director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the emergency powers law. “This is a completely different use of a well-utilized tool in going after what appears to be a purely economic dispute.”

But even if an unprecedented stretch of the law, some international trade lawyers said it was written broadly enough that Mr. Trump could prevail.

“The statute gives the president the right to do just about anything if he or she first declares that here’s a national security threat to the United States,” said Judith Alison Lee, a lawyer at Gibson Dunn in Washington. “It would be hugely disruptive but, technically speaking, I think the statute gives him that authority.”. .

[C]ongressional Republicans, who consider free-market principles a defining tenet and jealously guard their jurisdiction over trade, have balked in the past at Mr. Trump’s threats to intervene in the economy.

At the same time, given years of dealing with the president’s whipsawing declarations, particularly on trade, many Republicans have concluded that there is no upside to publicly breaking with Mr. Trump, preferring instead to try to influence him privately.

We like to believe that American presidents are not dictators, which may be true.  But that’s not because they lack dictatorial powers, rather it’s because they were too embarrassed to fully exercise those powers.  Over time, that reluctance has been gradually breaking down.  The GOP criticized Obama for overstepping his authority, and Trump has gone even further.  Trump is less easily embarrassed than any previous president.

Admittedly, Trump’s not so much the problem, as the manifestation of a problem that’s gradually been growing over time.  In 1974, Congress reined back presidential authority after Watergate.  I don’t expect that to occur this time, as politics is now too polarized.

Look for the next Democratic president to enact a wide array of socialist policies using emergency executive authority.  She may try to pack the Supreme Court.  Republicans who got hysterical over Clinton and Obama will then long for the “good old days” of constitutionally restrained Democratic presidents.


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Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment".

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