The Constitution of the United States establishes the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the government and provides a framework for effective rule through a system of checks and balances. In the period of time since the Constitution was written, many formal changes — known as amendments — have expanded the original document without altering its basic meaning. Though the president cannot change the Constitution, he can use executive power and influence to make informal changes.
Pushing an Agenda
Though the Constitution grants the power to enact new laws to the Congress of the United States, the president can exercise significant influence over the legislative agenda, especially if his party controls Congress. In the mid 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson's desire to transform American society inspired him to push Congress to pass a voting rights bill that would secure the right of minorities to vote without intimidation or obstacle. Though the Constitution grants voting rights to everyone without respect to race, color or previous status, many states had used various means such as literacy tests and poll taxes to prevent minorities from voting. President Johnson, in partnership with prominent civil rights leaders, used his influence to help pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race. The Act did not formally change the Constitution, but expanded a right that was a part of the original document.
Article II, Section 1 and Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution grants the president the authority of executive power. Using this power, the president can issue an executive order, which becomes law without the approval of Congress. An executive order is a legal directive the president issues to one of the federal agencies under his control. Some of these orders are symbolic, but some can also be used to informally expand the original meaning of the Constitution, such as President Truman's executive order integrating the military and President Clinton's decision to wage war in Yugoslavia without obtaining Congressional approval.
Though Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives the president the power to make treaties subject to Senate approval, the president can bypass the Senate by entering into an executive agreement with another nation. Treaties are formal agreements and can only be changed by future presidents with Senate approval. Executive agreements, however, are not binding, and can be rescinded by another president. A president's authority to issue an executive agreement derives from the Constitution's explicit declaration that grants him the power to represent the country in foreign policy as commander-in-chief.
Since President Washington was sworn in as the first leader of the United States, presidents have invoked the right of executive privilege, which is not in the Constitution. Executive privilege gives the president or another department in the executive branch the right to withhold sensitive information from the judicial and legislative branches of government, and from the American people. Presidents typically invoke this right in matters of national security., as President Lincoln did when he revoked the right to habeas corpus during the Civil War. The Supreme Court has ruled that while the executive branch should have the authority to hide some information, this right is not absolute.
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