Unitary Executive

Yesterday at an AFF panel debating the future of Executive power under Obama Gene Healy noted that the phrase “unitary executive” is primarily associated with Bush 43, particularly w/ his “torture” policies.  Gene leaned loosely on the Federalist papers for the origin of the phrase, but later told me that the evolved phrase is synonymous simply with “strong.”

I have a hard time with this.  The point of a term of art is that a word or phrase keeps a consistent meaning so we can communicate effectively.  It’s cheating to cite to the Fed papers and at the same time claim that the meaning has evolved so that the original phrase is unrecognizable.   

The phrase was Hamilton encouraging the Framers to let one person be responsible for ultimate decisions.  Spooked by a tyrranous king, some founding fathers suggested hobbling the Exec w/ a co-presidency, or a joint branch like a mini-legislature.  Hamilton pointed out that if there’s no single person responsible for decision-making at the margins then no one will be accountable and we’ll all switch to passive voice as decisions simply…don’t get made.  If, for instance, a foreign army attacks the US and the structure of gov’t restrains the other branches from responding, Hamilton’s “unitary executive” recommendation provides that the one guy voted into this power would have to decide what to do.  He has counsel and advisors, of course, but ultimately one guy celebrates or takes the fall.  It’s a decision-making role.  Hamilton just pointed out that decision by committee doesn’t work, and it’s that kind of nontransparent lack of accountability that leads to tyranny.

Gene claims that the phrase has come to mean “powerful.”  The new unitary excecutive, then, is just powerful when compared with the other branches.  Singularly strong, if I understand it correctly.

I get that meanings evolve, but this has evolved in two ways that separate it completely from the original meaning.  First, we’re looking at a shift in the meaning’s scope.  Where Hamilton’s meaning was intra-branch, this proposed evolution spans the entire government.  The Executive has always been the only branch permitted to “act” (whereas loosely the Legislature funds and the Judicial branch provides the king’s thumbs-up or -down at the margins).  So Hamilton was just saying: If two people at once are equally charged with “action” then we will never know who’s doing what.  

This new meaning implies that the Executive subsumes powers from the entire government like some sort of vortex.  This latter “unitary” implies that the government is just converging in one spot.  Which makes sense, except that Gene admits that Bush’s presidency was a kind of 2+man show.  So the original meaning must have ceased to exist and been replaced whole cloth by this evolution; Bush’s unitary presidency wasn’t “unitary” at all.

What’s more is that spurring the torture talks was among the least unitary things Bush did, and among the most unitary parts of Obama’s first 100 days.  Bush was like a many-headed beast in that respect, so the only people accountable for drawing the line between what is and is not torture were the lawyers named on the memos.  

Meanwhile Obama has made himself singularly responsible in that department.  Though he now claims he has no intention of indicting the memo writers, legal action murmurs persist from the White House.  Bush delegated to the point that his lack of accountable decision making became a fault.   Obama on the other hand has thoroughly disincentivized an active cabinet and a forthcoming Justice Dept.  With two branches now completely aligned the only check on Obama’s singular power is the slow arm of the Supreme Court.  

Our founding fathers envisioned a government with some power overlap in the Venn diagram of gov’t.  The President should be able to act, decisively, and the Legislature may choose not to fund his choice.  In that case the President directs the immediate response to a crisis, but the sustained reaction falls out of unitary hands.  The Legislature decides what prolonged course of action the gov’t will take.  And, ultimately, if everyone is outside the lines then the Court remands the whole thing back w/ a directive against a given avenue.  

Part of the point of having a strong one-accountable-guy Executive model is the added benefit of forging a kind of ambition cantilever.  The President’s ability to act quickly when necessary is among his only major check on other branches that survives the periods when the Exec/Leg branches are aligned.  For instance right now the veto is a pretty impotent tool when everyone kowtows to this particularly messianic — ahem, unitary — leader.  But the power to act retains its strength if, say, a company needs nationalizing and no one else is poised (or morally inclined) to seize.*

So is it possible for a phrase to change and absolutely replace its previous meaning?  It happened to “due process,” I suppose.  I just say: If your meaning is the exact opposite of the original meaning, then don’t cite the original sources.  The difference is primarily in scope, but the differences at the two iterations’ cores are so fundamental that it’s effectively a totally new phrase.  

On a broader scale I get frustrated when we don’t define the words we’re using.  Democracy?  What does that mean?  “Democracy” in Iraq is different from sought “democracy” in Cuba, which is different still from what we have here (in fact a REPUBLIC, but dem w/ a big “D”).  Clearly meaning is all context, but the semantic drift phenomenon makes conversations more complicated than we admit.  I love language and love how it evolves, but just cite to the relevant source.  Only if we keep track of the context can we keep track of words’ definitions.  Only then can we even start to discuss a viable recommendation moving forward.  


*I’m a nerd, I know, but are we basically making an argument here that GM is blighted?  Is this tacit nationalization really just eminent domain by another name?


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