Professor Douglas L. Kriner gives lecture on executive-legislative relations in U.S. politics

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Professor of government at Cornell University, Douglas Kriner, gave a lecture on the executive-legislative relations in the era of the Trump on Friday, Feb. 22. The lecture focused on the validity and the effectiveness of the checks and balances system in American politics in regulating the power of the executive branch.

Kriner is a two-time recipient of the Richard E. Neustadt Best Book Award (recognizing scholarship in executive politics), as well as the Richard F. Fenno Jr. Prize (recognizing scholarship in legislative studies) for his books “Investigating the President: Congressional Checks on Presidential Power” and “The Particularistic President: Executive Branch Politics and Political Inequality.”

As the Walker-Ames room in Kane Hall began to fill, Kriner began his lecture by posing one particular question: “Are Madisonian checks and balances obsolete?” He continued by asking whether or not the current political climate suggested an imperial presidency. He elaborated by pointing out recent political turns in the United States, such as the president declaring national emergencies over a border wall, that gave ample room for such doubts on the validity of the balance of powers to rise.

However, Kriner stated that this unilateralist taint in the executive branch is nothing new. Over the course of the past century, unilateral actions from presidents have become more and more pervasive, so much that it now virtually defines the modern American presidency.

According to Kriner, the reason for this shift to a more authoritarian presidency might be due to the lack of institutional checks on the executive branch.

“Theoretically, the Congress and federal courts could strike down on executive actions,” he said. “However, throughout the course of contemporary history, they have been much reluctant to do so, essentially rendering the institutional checks on presidential unilateralism null and void.”

Nevertheless, Kriner held a more positive view on the system of checks and balances. He presented several graphs that measured presidential unilateralism based on the executive orders given out by past presidents. Pointing to these figures, he said that when these orders were further categorized into those that were mentioned in major news outlets, the numbers went down immensely. According to Kriner, this meant that past unilateral actions by the presidents have not been as significant enough to count for an authoritarian shift.

Here, he posed a second question: “If the presidents can get away with executive actions — seeing how the institutional checks on the executive branch are practically ineffective — why aren’t they doing it more?”

To answer that inquiry, Kriner introduced the power of public opinion. He argued that it is public opinion that ultimately functions as the checks and balances for presidential unilateralism. Kriner argued this is because public opinion affects presidential approval, which in turn determines the reelection prospects of the president, the electoral fortunes of the president’s co-partisan Congress, and the electoral fortunes of the co-partisan successor in the White House — all extremely important matters to the politician.

Kriner also pointed out that even when presidents do act unilaterally, statistics have shown that they enjoyed public support. Furthermore, statistics revealed that the more popular presidents have issued more significant executive actions.

“These are all scenarios we would witness if public opinion did indeed check presidential imperialism,” Kriner concluded.

The bottom line of Kriner’s argument was that although institutions have not proven to be significant actors, public opinion may indeed serve as a check on presidential unilateralism in their place. He suggested that hopefully, public opinion would be influential enough to maintain the democracy and balance within the American political system.

Despite his optimism, Kriner wrapped up his lecture on a cautious tone.

“President Trump is an anomaly,” he said. “He seems to be more interested in the Trump brand itself, rather than institutions or public opinion. Whether President Trump will continue to pursue his authoritarian actions will determine if he represents a genuine threat to the checks and balance system of American politics.”

Reach contributing writer Paris Boo at Twitter: @ParisYBoo

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