Those parts of the Executive Branch of the federal government that have the most power are those that reside inside the Executive Office of the President (i.e., the White House) and those that both oversee the largest portions of the federal budget and that exist to carry out functions that...
Those parts of the Executive Branch of the federal government that have the most power are those that reside inside the Executive Office of the President (i.e., the White House) and those that both oversee the largest portions of the federal budget and that exist to carry out functions that entail the greatest responsibilities. With respect to the former – the Executive Office of the President (EOP) – the most powerful positions in government, after the president, are the president’s chief of staff, the Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (also known as the National Security Advisor), the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisors, and the director of the Office of Administration. Among these, the president’s chief of staff is generally the most important position in the White House. This individual is usually personally closest to the president and serves as the president’s “gatekeeper” and principal advisor on most issues.
Outside of the EOP, the most powerful single figure in the Executive Branch is probably the secretary of Defense. With responsibilities for hundreds of billions of dollars annually and the care and maintenance of the nation’s armed forces – currently numbering about 1 ½ million active duty and another 800,000 in the reserves and National Guard – the secretary of Defense is the most important and powerful member of the President’s Cabinet.
Over time, the amount of power consolidated in the Office of the President has grown, including in relation to the other branches of government. Presidents have rarely shied away form exercising every bit of authority granted them under the U.S. Constitution, but they also tend to employ teams of very capable of lawyers for the purpose of interpreting the Constitution in a manner that allows them to exercise additional levels of authority. Examples of this use – some would say “abuse” – of power includes the Executive Branch’s refusal to allocate congressionally-mandated funds for specific purposes; the diversion of funds for purposes unintended by Congress; the use of Executive Orders and Presidential Findings to circumvent the law-making process and the role of Congress; and so on. One of the failings of the system of government that has allowed for the scale of the shift of the balance of power among branches of government towards the Executive Branch is Congress’s traditional unwillingness to fully exercise its authorities, mainly over the federal budget. The fundamental issue of war and peace, which the Constitution’s authors deliberately and carefully addressed through the provision of certain powers, like that over the budget and the authority to declare war, with the Legislative Branch while ascribing to the presidency the power of “commander-in-chief” over how the armed forces are actually used. Presidents George H.W. Bush, William Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all utilized the military in ways that may have exceeded their constitutional authorities, as did others before them. Presidential legal advisors are very adept at parsing definitions of key words like “war” for the purpose of navigating through the shoals of constitutional law. Consequently, military actions that meet some peoples’ definition of “war” are labeled as operations other war for the purpose of allowing presidents to deploy military forces without congressional authorizations. Congress’ main authority in such matter lies in its control over the federal budget, but it remains historically extremely reluctant to exercise that authority, fearing a definitive loss of power both in perception and in reality while fearing to be seen restraining the president’s freedom of movement in national security affairs.
There have been members of Congress – always from the political party NOT in control of the White House – who have argued that White House officials like the Special Assistant for National Security Affairs and various directors for issues like counterterrorism and economic affairs should be subject to Senate confirmation in the same manner as the top levels of each of the federal agencies that comprise the Executive Branch (i.e., Departments of State, Defense, the Treasury, etc.) These are very powerful positions yet are not subject to congressional oversight. Most, however, believe that these positions should not be subject to congressional oversight. Presidents need to be able to staff their office with individuals in whom they have absolute trust and confidence and who are not subject to congressional control by virtue of Congress’s control over the budgets of duly-established federal agencies. The National Security and National Economic Advisors are just that: advisors. Presidents have legitimate requirements for such individuals and the imposition of congressional controls, including a formal confirmation process, is antithetical to the efficient operation of the Office of the Presidency. One major exception is the director of Office of Management and Budget, which exists within the EOP but whose director and other top officials are confirmed by the Senate. The OMB exercises a very high level of control over the federal budget, overseeing each individual agency’s preparation of budgets for future fiscal years, and there does exist a broad consensus that these budgetary powers warrant closer congressional scrutiny than do positions inside the White House like chief of staff and National Security Advisor.
As noted above, there does not today exist an adequate balance of power between the Executive and Legislative Branches of government. While Congress remains a powerful institution, the willingness of presidents of both political parties to exercise powers that may exceed the intentions of the Framers’ intent has shifted the balance towards the Office of the President. Unless or until Congress exercises the power of the purse and restricts funding for activities it determines are unconstitutional, such practices on the part of presidents will continue. Partisanship in Congress and the tendency for the party whose leader is currently president to support that president irrespective of merits and constitutionality, however, makes it extremely unlikely such an exercise of power over the budget for the purpose of restraining the president will occur any time soon.