The Presidency. In 1975, with the country reeling over Watergate and the White House now occupied by someone not elected to the highest office, the question arose as to just how much power the President had, and what if any changes were needed.
In this Town Meeting, Senators Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) and Richard Schweiker (R-PA.) were asked if the reassertion of Congressional authority would jeopardize the ability of the President to exert his Constitutional authority. They were also asked if it was time to abolish the Electoral College system of selecting a President and go instead with the Popular Vote in selecting a President. The general consensus was that it was time for a change, that the Electoral College System was archaic and outmoded; that the country had changed considerably since it was first introduced in 1787. Since this discussion was being moderated by the League Of Women Voters, it was disclosed that some 89% of the members favored abolishment of the old system.
Bayh added that assertion of Congressional authority would not jeopardize the President’s ability to exert his Constitutional Authority and that, as much as he felt the President’s authority had encroached on Congress’ authority in recent years, and not just during the Nixon administration, but abuses in previous administrations – he did feel the need for a strong Presidency that played by the rules was needed, especially during this time of complex situations that had been developing throughout the world. He also felt that it was virtually impossible to govern a nation during these times by committee. You had to have a strong Executive Branch, but it needed to know what those powers were. And there was plenty of power in that branch to deal with situations without having to resort to usurping the constitutional powers of Congress.
Many wondered if the old rules, those which were established during the founding of this country were still applicable in a more contemporary context. Bayh felt they were and he remarked at how phenomenal the foresight was during the formation of the constitution, in anticipating many of the situations that were prevalent in 1975 – and one of those was protecting the citizens of the United States from governmental abuse.
Recent events included the passing of the War Powers act, which reaffirmed the Congressional role in the Constitution to declare War. As well as extending the confirmation authority of Congress to cover offices which had tremendous power, but which prior to that time had not been covered by the confirmation power of the Senate.
During this one-hour discussion and Question-and-Answer period, both Bayh and Weicker brought up several points. Weicker added that Article 2 of the Constitution which defines the power of the President is very brief and concise, in a document noted for its brevity and conciseness. In sharp contrast to Article 1 which details and outlines the role of the Legislative branch, Article 2 merely states “The Executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States Of America“. It does go on to say the President is Commander-in-Chief and shall have power to make treaties, pardon federal crime, shall be required to communicate to Congress on the State of the Union from time to time. But the only Constitutional provision that gives any hint on how the president should occupy himself on a daily basis is the first sentence. So it was Weicker’s assertion that the starting point for the discussion was to take a look at Executive branch and a hard look at Executive Power and what it meant.
So, to get a better idea of the need for changes in the Presidency and what they entailed, here is that episode of National Town Meeting from NPR, as broadcast on April 9, 1975.