top of page

Unitary Executive Theory

In Civics class in high school, we learned about the governments and constitutions of different countries. We started with India and then covered US, Russia, England, Germany and others. The concept of checks-and-balances in the US constitution was drilled into us as a beacon of intellectual prowess. A brilliant system that prevents one branch of the government from gaining more power than the others, providing a guarantee against a dictator or usurper of power. Thirty-odd years of living here has only deepened my appreciation of this incredible concept and the forefathers who envisioned it.

Until the George W. Bush administration. And then the Trump administration. Since the Iraq war, we have quizzically looked at each other wondering where checks and balances have disappeared as the executive branch has done "its thing". People ignore Congressional subpoenas, the executive threatens to override judicial decisions, and we have witnessed disregard for co-equal running of the government.

Last weekend I watched the movie "Vice" with the brilliant Christian Bale who transformed himself into Dick Cheney so well that there were moments when I truly believed the real person and the actor are one and the same. This movie provided me with critical context not covered in Civics class. Granted that its is a movie, not a documentary. Granted it's from liberally-minded Hollywood. Granted that nobody really knows the inner-workings of the executive branch except a privileged few. Yet, the movie exposed an indisputable fact: Cheney is an ardent supporter of a "strong" interpretation of the Unitary Executive Theory.

In lay terms, this states that the constitution grants sole power to the President to make unilateral decisions for the nation's security. The executive branch, by ownership of the defense and enforcement agencies, is uniquely positioned to act on what the executive deems is necessary in the nation's security interest. A "weak" interpretation says that the power vested in the executive branch is to be exercised within the context provided by the legislative and judicial branches. Cheney and co. and now Trump and co. believe that the chief executive has the authority to act unilaterally without seeking blessings as long as it is framed within the context of national threat. This nuance was missed in the education regarding checks-and-balances.

A declaration of war or a national threat gives the executive the authority to throw checks and balances to the wind. But waging a war against a stateless entity such as Al Qaeda or ISIS does not afford the necessary consolidation of power for the executive branch. The chief executive has unprecedented powers when war is waged against a state, like Iraq. Cheney hired sharp lawyers like David Addington and John Yoo, ardent believers in the strong interpretation, to write lengthy and complex legal opinions that legitimized the flouting of the Geneva Convention rules against torture, holding of prisoners without cause, and wire-tapping civilians for "metadata" - all fueled by Unitary Executive Theory.

So, watch out for the next war. It will allow this administration unprecedented options to further toss checks and balances into the gutter and drive executive orders based on ideology. Under W, the idea was democratization of the Middle East and the protagonists were Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and Cheney. Decade and a half later, the soap opera - titled "Nation Under Threat" - is the same, only the trifecta is different: Miller, Bolton, and Trump are the new avatars of the strong Unitary Executive Theory. And the forefathers are rolling in their graves wishing they had been more explicit in the constitution.

bottom of page