Do Wars Make Presidents Too Powerful?

This project evaluates the impacts of war on presidential power and public policymaking. It takes as its starting point Clinton Rossiter’s “axiom of political science,” to which scholars ranging from Edward Corwin to John Yoo have assented, that “great emergencies in the life of a constitutional state bring an increase in executive power and prestige, always at least temporarily, more often than not permanently.” To investigate the theoretical and empirical underpinnings of this “axiom,” this project examines whether during periods of war (in particular, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, and the post-9.11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) Congress is more likely to enact, and the courts are more likely to approve, elements of the president’s domestic and foreign policy agendas.  The primary objective of this project is to examine the overall impact of war on the president’s capacity to advance his policy agenda at home.

That is from the National Science Foundation-funded project of William Howell.  I highlight this because I think it speaks to a perennial concern of members of Congress: that during times of war presidential power takes precedence over the power of Congress and the courts.  I think of this as a bipartisan concern as well—think of Democrats’ concerns during the War in Iraq or Republicans’ concerns during U.S. military involvement in Libya.  Howell’s previous work, co-authored with Jon Pevehouse, argues that Congress may have more power in wartime than is typically suggested.  This project follows up on a related question.

Why would this project be of broader interest?  The American system of government was founded on the premises of separation of powers and checks and balances, with a particular concern among many of the Founders about executive power.  If, however, war upsets that system of checks and balances, thereby aggrandizing the power of the executive, this may be a concern.  Howell’s project will gather the necessary data to figure out whether, how much, and why this may happen.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.