I saw a popular megachurch pastor once post on “10 things I would do if I were president.” A few of his ideas were good. Some were not. Some were contradictory (like cutting taxes and declaring indefinite wars at the same time). It got me to thinking: if a real advocate of liberty ever did win the presidency, what could he actually accomplish?
I once begged a leading libertarian website editor to have Ron Paul post on this very question back when it mattered for him. I got nothing. So here’s my brief stab at it, for what it’s worth. Here’s me considering “what I would do” if I were president.
What can a President really do, after all?
Here are a few important musings first. If you want to go directly to my personal actions, skip down to the section, “What President McDurmon would really do.”
First, we’ve got to realize that presidents don’t make laws. That’s Congress’s job. The President may make recommendations, but not pass legislative Acts. The President’s job is to enforce the laws that Congress makes. More specifically, the Constitution states his job description as: “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” He has other duties and powers besides this, but this is the relevant part.
Now, it just so happens that this very description has a lot of leeway in it. The phrase “faithfully executed” leaves it largely to the president’s discretion as to what “faithful execution” of any given law really is. This is especially true when laws are written over thousands of pages with scores of undefined parameters. In each one of those places, the President has some flexibility as to how he will execute that law. These are where the President’s now-famous “pen and phone” can come into play in a startlingly powerful way. (This leeway was objected to, by the way, by the earliest of the opponents of the Constitution. I have written about this in Restoring America, for those interested in further detail.)
While the President cannot make law formally, he can to a large degree informally where Congressional Acts have created areas or agencies in which he can do so. And it just so happens that, over the years, Congress has created little things like the IRS, FBI, CIA, NSA, EPA, ADA, FDA, USDA, DOD, DOJ, DHS, HHS, HUD, DOC, DOE, DOL, DoED, FRS, ad nauseam, and countless thousands of pages of Code empowering those agencies (for example, the ObamaCare bill was over 2,000 pages, famously, but not many know that the regulations written on top of that stack up to over 33,000 pages!). So there are plenty of areas where a President can get his crypto-legislative swerve on.
So when people play the game “If I were President,” they probably really could do a lot of the things they wish through some of these hundreds of channels at the President’s disposal. But most of these would be devious abuses of the very statist power us liberty folk and conservatives say we wish to get rid of.
This creates a real problem. How do we get rid of big government without using the central powers, machinery, and strong-arm tactics of big government to do so? How would one do this especially from the office of the one guy whose constitutional job is to make sure that machinery keeps on running?
How do we cross this impasse? Or, more to the point, what could a real champion of liberty accomplish as president?
I maintain that this problem cannot be solved through the presidency alone. Ultimately, the President’s hands are tied by the Constitution and the subsequent legislation of Congress. This is a problem largely created by Congress, and which will take Congress to undo.
Here’s an example: some have cleverly thought that one great thing a president could do would be to sign an executive order rescinding all previous executive orders. This is cheeky, and would certainly make for fun watching the lawyers scramble; but it would fail. The vast majority of executive orders were written to keep the machinery of administrative government rolling in countless cases, scenarios, and crises. That is to say, they were written in faithful execution of the law—just as the Constitution requires. And where did this “law” come from. Again, Congress. Whether the “law” in question is the actual text of the Congressional Acts that created the alphabet soup of administrative government, or the leeway that the president’s job description gives him does not matter. It’s law that exists due to Congressional Act and faithful execution, both according to the Constitution.
If a President hacked down all previous executive orders, he would he negating a massive swath of that which all previous Congressional and Court precedent has determined to be legitimate and constitutional. It would take only an “injured” party who depends upon that vast array of administrative agencies to file a lawsuit against the administration for failure to do his constitutional duty, and the Court would uphold the plaintiff. This would be true in the vast array of lawsuits that would arise, and the Court would force the president back into faithful execution of the administrative behemoth which exists.
But what if this president refused to comply? What if he single-handedly tried to dismantle the administrative state and all its departments? After all, he is the chief Executive. He’s the one who tells the federal marshals whom to arrest, not the court. No matter what the Court decides, it cannot enforce its decision without the Executive, right? There is one check yet: impeachment. Any president who defied both Court and Congress so brazenly—especially when all special interests who depend on the administrative State are calling for his head in conjunction as well—impeachment would be near-automatic. It would be broadly popular, it would be bipartisan, and it would probably not require much debate in Congress.
Once impeached, marshals and military would have no obligation to obey that President—former President, that is.
Of course this is all extreme, but it exhibits just how ridiculous it is to think a President can change much in this country. The real problems we have lie much deeper and in a different place: with the people, and with Congress. The President’s hands are tied by the larceny in the hearts of both, not to mention his own.
All this hopelessness aside, however, I do believe there are still some things a President can do to advance liberty. These are things to do within the system, perfectly in accordance with the Constitution and existing laws.
What President McDurmon would really do
First, we need a President who has the ability to withstand not only the abuse of power, but even the use of power. Now, I understand I have already crossed into Disney World with this criterion, but humor me for the moment. This guy is going to have to act consciously and willingly with far less power than is already at his disposal.
Second, and most important, is the veto. I would “recommend” a budget that begins not merely by balancing the budget, but by cutting it 25 percent across the board. This would only be a first step. This budget would be graduated to achieve 50 percent cuts within four years, and continued cuts after that. I would announce that I will veto any budget that does not meet or exceed these criteria.
If Congress refused to meet these criteria, I would veto any budget or spending bill they put forth. This would require 2/3 vote in both houses of Congress to override. If they were to override successfully, then they would own it. It would be clear to all the world that our budget woes rested upon the shoulders of Congress and Congress alone.
Then, I would then make them own it. I would hold regular press conferences making this case in a detailed way. I would hold regular press conferences on the future impending problems of financial insolvency. I would show them a chart (below) of the national debt and its explosive growth (now over $20 Trillion and climbing). I would make it clear this has occurred equally under Democrat and Republican administrations. I would detail the woes of the social security and Medicare systems (something like $40- to $70 Trillion in unfunded liabilities). I would show the field of ice before this Titanic, and I would show Congress at the helm plowing full speed ahead.
On the fantastic chance, however, that my recommendations were followed and a –25 percent budget passed, Congress still owns it, but I would sign it. I would make the corresponding cuts to the departments in areas where bureaucrats are unneeded and overfed, etc., then I would coordinate the PR to show exactly what unnecessary waste was cut and why. I would also show at the same time how the law is still being faithfully executed on the slimmer budget yet, most importantly, how the cuts that were made had little effect on the vibrancy of service. In fact, if anything, a leaner department may turn out more efficient services. This would be a bonus.
I would continue this year-to-year with cuts increased. The more fat cats, cronies, and bureaucrats squealed, the more I would show just how unnecessary they were all along, how much they were robbing the public, and how much they feel entitled to do so. I would not only strip the budget, I would educate a generation of people to despise fat cats and bloated bureaucrats (I may even use the Department of Education to distribute that PR just for fun).
These things are just small beginnings to address the most serious problem. All other overreaches of the U.S. tyranny have their root in Congress’s ability to fund them, or to “fund” them. In the end, if you want to destroy the bureaucracy, you have to defund it and delegitimize it. Nothing else will work. Congress holds the purse strings, and they have unlimited borrowing potential because of the Federal Reserve System which, again, Congress created. The President has little control over any of these things. On the contrary, he is bound by them. He is required to uphold them and run them—and if he refuses, he gets in hot water. So, we need a different tactic: mass-educate the public as to the true nature of the national heist.
You can change who sits in the seat of the Executive, and who sits in the seats of his many cabinets and departments, but even having the best of principled conservatives or even hard-core libertarians in those seats would mean little ultimate change in their function. The difference amounts to minor trivialities and petty tribal squabbles in the big picture. What needs to happen is a large-scale defunding and deligitimizing.
That must come through Congress. And to accomplish that feat through Congress will require a lot more creativity than I have in me today.
There is one alternative. The defunding could come from outside Congress in one scenario: bankruptcy. If the U.S. government cannot pay its bills, then cutting heads off the hydra may be perceived as a public necessity. But in the type of crisis which would make such a bankruptcy come about, the blood and tears would spread much farther than Washington, D.C. Absent that, we need a massive revival that involves not only changed hearts but also informed minds, new convictions, and new determinations moved by those convictions.