Presidential Power and Congressional Acquiescence in the "War" on Terrorism

A New Constitutional Equilibrium? A Critical Analysis

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

9 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Punctuated Equilibrium Theory

3. The System of Checks and Balances out of Work?
3.1. The Constitution
3.2. The Congress and the President during the Administration of George W. Bush until
3.2.1. The Congress
3.2.2. Imperial Presidency
3.3. Conclusion

4. Checking the Punctuated Equilibrium Theory after

5. Sources

1. Introduction

In his article “Presidential Power and Congressional Acquiescence in the ‘War’ on Terrorism: A New Constitutional Equilibrium?” John E. Owens of the University of Westminster suggests the existence of a new constitutional equilibrium between the President and Congress in America. He builds his thesis on Burnham’s punctuated equilibrium theory and analyzes Bush’s policy and his war on terrorism.

In this essay I will explain the main thesis of the punctuated equilibrium theory at first, to build on that basis the critical analysis whether the system of Checks and Balances in the United States is or has been out of work and whether we can truly speak of a change of system. This will be checked by analysing the constitution, the role of the Congress and the presidency of George W. Bush. In a second part of this essay I will take up the punctuated equilibrium theory again and explain that the equilibrium of the American system has been punctuated but it was not pushed on a new level, but levelled off again on the old equilibrium and re-established the system of Checks and Balances.

2. Punctuated Equilibrium Theory

Burnham’s punctuated equilibrium theory offers an explanation of how systems react to external shocks. These shocks or rapid changes, for example in society, economy or environment, lead to new demands on the state. These demands generate moments of opportunity to act and disrupt the stability which existed between the Congress and the President. The decisions and actions that are taken at that point of crisis lead to a new equilibrium which defines the frame for actions when the next external shock ensues (Owens 2006: 261). Owens states that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001 were such an external shock to America and extremely influenced the policy making of the Bush Administration with their “war” on terror (Owens 2006: 258). As a consequence Bush successfully expanded his presidential powers with this permanent war and laid the basis for a long lasting presidential supremacy in the United States of America.

3. The system of Checks and Balances out of work?

In the following I want to analyse firstly how the Constitution wants to guarantee the system of Checks and Balances and which function and duties the Congress and the President have to restrict each other’s powers. Secondly I will check the Congress’ role and what makes him weak. And thirdly I will have a look at George W. Bush’s position during his presidency and whether one can speak of an “imperial presidency”.

3.1. The Constitution

The framers of the Constitution initially placed congressional power above presidential power. This gets obvious when comparing Articles I, about the Legislative, with Article II, about the Executive (Genovese 2011: 3 f). At first, after putting the Constitution into power, this was reflected in the political reality, but over time, the Legislative and Executive in effect switched sides and Presidents gained more and more power over the last decades. With the Constitution being rather vague and open, especially about the President’s role, the separated system of the United States provokes a never ending struggle for power between Congress and President. On the one hand this leads to competition between the institutions which keep the system fluid and dynamic. On the other hand it is able to block the whole system which could end in stagnation. However this intensive competition wouldn’t be the case in a system with a fusion of power, as in a parliamentary democracy, like the German Government, for instance. In a fused system the Executive is bound to the Legislative, because the Executive, the German Chancellor, is elected by the Bundestag and consequently dependent on it. So when the Chancellor is elected, he or she has the majority of the Legislative behind him and they work together and not, as it is often the case in a presidential system, against each other.

A point of never ending discussion is especially the role of the American president in times of war. Originally extensive war powers were specifically reserved to Congress, as Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution makes clear. The ambiguity within the Constitution causes different points of view on the role of the President. Some say, the framers wanted the President’s power strictly limited to emergency response. Others say the President’s role was left vague, because then he can act fast to whatever situation might come. What is sure is the fact that the president has enormous constitutional advantages in times of war (Skowronek 2008: 153).

Consequently it is not surprising that presidents made use of these advantages since the existence of the Constitution. Especially George W. Bush, not least of all, made extensive use of it and even over-stressed unilateral power. But how was that possible for him? Did Bush Jr. in exploiting his presidential and unilateral power shift the old equilibrium between Congress and President onto a new equilibrium? We saw in the last passage of the explanation about the constitutional role that the Constitution itself is rather vague about the President’s power and consequently the President is, theoretically, able to push the equilibrium between the Congress and the President onto a new level. Whether Bush actually realised that, as Owen claims, is to be analysed in the following parts of the essay.

3.2. The President and the Congress during the Administration of George W. Bush until 2006

Owen is definitely right when he states that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 have punctuated the before existing equilibrium between President and Congress. The incidents have shaken the whole United States of America or one could even go so far as to say they have shaken the whole world or at least the western world. So of course this has to have a huge impact on the political level, too. With 9/11 the focus of the whole world lay on the President of the United States of America. He is the person who represents the nation to the outside as well as to the inside, because he is elected by the people. Although the Congress is elected by the people, too, the President is the one in the focus, because he is a single person with the whole Executive in his hand, while the Congress consists of some hundred Representatives and Senators who make decisions together.

3.2.1. The Congress

The Congress itself has some weak points which make it more difficult for him to compete with the president. Firstly he in general finds it difficult to coordinate. Its sheer size and the diversity of its people can be a problem for the Congress. Moreover, to the diversity of the people, the two parties are added which lead to further inner conflicts. These make it difficult for the Congress to response fast to the President or to respond at all. Besides, the President has the huge advantage that he is a single person who can adapt to new situations or changing popular opinion much faster and more easily than the Congress is able to. So the Congress is confronted with its sluggishness, while the President can act immediately. Furthermore the President has a direct access to information of all kind, while the Congress has to get its information from second-hand or doesn’t get it at all. In addition, the Congress often doesn´t want to take over responsibility and therefore delegates its power. The Congress fears the blame that could derive from taking responsibility for an action or decision he makes. (Owens 2006: 264, 289)

The Congress’ situation is well described by Owens and leads to the image of a weak Legislative. This is an argument for the fact that the system of Checks and Balances doesn’t or at least didn’t work properly. But these arguments alone don’t explain the extreme power of the Executive during Bush Jr. Administration. So now the concrete situation of George W. Bush’s presidency shall be analysed.

3.2.2. Imperial Presidency

The decisive point from which on Bush’s presidency was often called “imperial presidency” was the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in 2001. From this date Bush had nearly unanimous public support. All attention was on him and approval ratings for the President shot into unprecedented levels (Owens 2006: 288). This of course caused also enormous support for the President from the Congress, so Bush knew the whole nation behind him and what is more, the whole nation expected the President to lead it through this crisis. So there is, always in times of crisis, a common recognition that the president must provide national leadership in such situations. Consequently one could say the nation itself shifted the focus on its President and opened him up the way for his “imperial presidency”.

“Imperial Presidency”, originally brought into the debate by the Progressive historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., means the development of modern America toward unbridled presidentialism (Skowronek 2008: 150). We can take this thesis and apply it to the Bush Administration. Bush saw himself in a position of unbridled power and public support and developed enormous self-confidence or the self-confidence he already had even intensified. This gets obvious when we have a look at how he pictured himself and his position.

Bush said that the President has to be the calcium in the backbone (Owens 2006: 265). This means that he pictures himself as immensely important and that he has to be very strong, otherwise the whole team would weaken. On another occasion he also said that he, as a President doesn’t owe an explanation to anyone (Owens 2006: 266). These and other quotations of him show that he makes decisions and gives orders in an authoritarian way, which have to be followed. He is the unbridled Executive and wants to execute his ideas and expectations. Consequently he sees himself as an “imperial president” and acts like that. From this point of view it was kind of a happy incident for Bush that with 9/11 the public opinion was switched to a level, where this was accepted or even expected from the President. If these attacks didn´t happen it would be questionable, whether Bush could have acted in that imperial and unbridled way. With his declaration of the “war” on terror he turned more or less the whole system upside down, because normally it is the Congress’ right to declare war, but they didn’t even complain, with some exceptions that were not heard, though.


Excerpt out of 9 pages


Presidential Power and Congressional Acquiescence in the "War" on Terrorism
A New Constitutional Equilibrium? A Critical Analysis
University of Würzburg  (Institut für Politikwissenschaft und Sozialforschung)
American Government
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
American, Government, Terrorism, War, President, Presidential, Power, Congress, Congressional, Acquiescence, Constitution, Equilibrium, Analysis, Relation, Comparison, John, Owens, John E. Owens
Quote paper
Sarah Wenzel (Author), 2012, Presidential Power and Congressional Acquiescence in the "War" on Terrorism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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