The U.S. Presidency: Office and Powers
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The U.S. Presidency: Office and Powers
Harold C. Relyea
Specialist in American National Government
The President of the United States heads the executive branch of the federal
government, which is constitutionally equal to the legislative and judicial branches.
While somewhat interdependent upon the other two branches, the President is vested
with strong appointive, administrative, legislative, fiscal, and international powers.
Initially assisted by a personal secretary and a few functionaries to maintain the White
House, the President was granted a modest expansion of his immediate staff in 1929.
Ten years later, the Executive Office of the President was established, and continues to
consist of several small agencies directly assisting the Chief Executive with matters of
policy development, program administration, and operations coordination. Currently,
the White House Office, counting the President's closest assistants, employs about 400
individuals; the collective units of the Executive Office of the President have staff levels
of approximately 1,600 employees. These are the extended eyes, ears, and hands of the
modern President. Constitutional and statutory law provide for succession to the office
in the event an incumbent President is unable to discharge his duties or dies.
The U.S. Presidency: Office and Powers
The Constitution of the United States vests all executive power in the President,
making this official the head of the executive branch. Two other branches—the legislative
and the judicial—are constitutionally equal to the executive. The Constitution also
indicates that the President "shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the
United States." In addition to exercising leadership of the executive branch departments
and agencies and the armed forces of the nation, the President has also come to assume
other important governmental roles unspecified in the Constitution. For example, acting
on behalf of the United States in its external relations with other countries, the President
is the head of state. An incumbent President is regarded to be the spokesman for and
leader of his political party. Finally, there is little doubt today that the President can play
decisive roles as well concerning the national economy, legislating policy, and molding
public opinion. After two hundred years of experience, the presidency stands as an office
of considerable power and role flexibility. Indeed, it has proven to be extraordinarily
adaptive to the changing needs of American government and society.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
The American presidency was created during the federal constitutional convention
of 1787. At that time, the national government of the United States was mandated by the
Articles of Confederation. All executive authority was exercised by the Congress of the
Confederation through committees and special agents. Dissatisfaction with this
arrangement prompted the 1787 convention. The resulting Constitution established the
Occupants of the office must be a "natural born Citizen," at least 35 years old, and
"fourteen Years a Resident within the United States." Selection occurs indirectly through
a nationwide popular ballot for so-called electors who, meeting as a special body known
as the electoral college, vote to determine a President. This process has been greatly
assisted during the past 150 years by the prevalence of strong political parties. The
President serves fours years and, since the 1951 ratification of the Twenty-Second
Amendment to the Constitution, "No person shall be elected to the office of the President
more than twice ...." The Constitution requires that the President be compensated for his
services. This salary rate is established by statutory law: the President is currently paid
$200,000 annually. Removal from the presidency shall occur, constitutionally, "on
Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and
Misdemeanors." Impeachment is a political proceeding, conducted by Congress, not the
courts. The House of Representatives prepares and approves the charges against the
President and the Senate conducts the trial, with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
The Constitution vests certain powers in the presidency, but does so within a larger
framework of checks and balances among the branches of the federal government. For
example, laws made by Congress are subject to presidential veto and to subsequent court
review. A presidential veto may constitutionally be overridden by Congress, and a
President's actions may come under judicial scrutiny. Nonetheless, the presidency
established by the Constitution, while somewhat interdependent upon the other two
branches, is vested with strong powers. These include:
The President makes about 3,000 civil appointments, including, among others,
personal aides, officers of the executive branch, members of temporary study commissions
and advisory committees, ambassadors and diplomatic personnel, and judges. While many
of these appointments require Senate confirmation, the President has considerable
discretion to build his team and otherwise to select individuals for government service
whom he deems fit.
Determining how to enforce the laws is a major administrative power of the
President. He may also effect reorganizations within the executive branch to achieve
efficiency and economy in operations, although some such restructuring may require
Apart from exercising his veto authority, the President may propose legislation for
congressional acceptance, delegate to subordinates powers statutorily bestowed upon him,
and issue administrative or implementing directives.
The President is responsible for the preparation of the executive branch budget and,
in cooperation with Congress, determining certain key aspects of fiscal policy, such as
management of the national debt, determining tax rates, and improving the country's
international trade position.
With regard to the nation's external affairs, the President has the power to make
treaties, although they must be approved by the Senate, and to recognize foreign
governments through the receipt of ambassadors and ministers. As Commander in Chief,
he may also make overseas use of American armed forces. Such deployments, however,
may be subject to congressional concurrence.
In formulating policy and faithfully executing the law, the President has historically
been assisted by a Cabinet. The constitutional basis for the Cabinet derives from the
President's authority to "require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of
the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective
offices." The traditional Cabinet consists of the Vice President and the heads of the major
executive branch departments—currently numbering 14 individuals. During the latter half
of the present century, Presidents have bestowed Cabinet rank on other officials, such as
their budget director, or removed them from this status. However, the value of the
Cabinet to Presidents has varied over the years depending upon the extent to which the
membership of the group was well regarded by a particular Chief Executive and the
availability of other useful sources of advice and assistance.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the President had an office in the White House,
where he was assisted by a solitary secretary, a few borrowed agency personnel and some
soldiers, and a small staff to maintain the executive residence. In 1929, Congress
increased the President's office staff, adding two more secretaries and an administrative
assistant. These modest staff arrangements prevailed until 1933 when Franklin D.
Roosevelt assumed the presidency and began utilizing various personal advisers and
assistants in efforts to combat the Great Depression. To accommodate this increased
number of presidential advisers and assistants, an important institutional adjustment was
made in the presidency. In 1939, the Executive Office of the President was established.
It consists of a group of agencies immediately serving the President. Among the more
enduring of these entities are The White House Office, the Office of Management and
Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, the National Security Council, and the Office
of the United States Trade Representative. Sometimes the Executive Office of the
President has consisted of a dozen or more units with a total staff of over 5,000 personnel.
Within the Executive Office, there have been times when the White House Office,
consisting of the President's closest assistants, has employed about 600 individuals.
Currently, however, the Executive Office units count staff levels of approximately 1,600
employees, with the White House Office at just under 400 personnel. These individuals
are the extended eyes, ears, and hands of the modern presidency.
Inability and Succession
The Constitution provides that, in the event of a vacancy in the presidency due to
death or resignation, the Vice President shall succeed to the office. Should there be no
Vice President at the time of a vacancy in the presidency, statutory law specifies a line of
succession for other officials to act as President. These, in order of progression, include
the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the President pro tempore of the Senate (the
longest serving majority party member of that body), and members of the traditional
Cabinet, beginning with the oldest established department.
Furthermore, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1967,
provides a process by which vacancies in the vice presidency shall be filled. This
amendment also specifies that, whenever an incumbent President informs Congress by
written declaration "that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and
until he transmits ... a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be
discharged by the Vice President as Acting President." The Amendment also provides
that, whenever the Vice President "and a majority of either the principal officers of the
executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide," transmit
to Congress "their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers
and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties
of the office as Acting President." To date, Congress has not established the "other body"
referred to in this provision; there has been no occasion when any official other than the
Vice President has succeeded to the presidency; and only during a few brief periods of
illness or medical treatment have there been occasions for the Vice President, at the
President's direction, to assume the role of Acting President.
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-----Presidential Directives. CRS Report 95-139 GOV, by Harold C. Relyea.
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