Danger of executive power grabs in times of crisis

Wars and crises have frequently led to the expansion of government power in general, and the enhancement of U.S. presidential powers in particular. Presidents Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt expanded previous White House authority to meet the demands of the Civil War, World Wars I and II and economic depression.

Some of their actions were subsequently ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court – usually after the war ended – but in subsequent eras were used by other presidents as precedents for expanding their authority. Among their actions:

  • During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln imposed martial law on areas of the North sympathetic to the South, suspended habeas corpus (a constitutional protection for people who are arrested), and authorised secret military tribunals.
  • Lincoln also instituted the first military draft in the U.S. and first federal income tax (later ruled unconstitutional).

    Woodrow Wilson used administrative measures and broad congressional authorisation to command and control the economy to an unprecedented degree during World War I.
  • His administration seized and operated communications and transportation networks, fixed prices, managed production and distribution, and controlled manufacturing plants and mines.
  • Civil liberties were curtailed by the Espionage Act, under which even peaceful protests of the wartime draft led to imprisonment.

    Franklin D. Roosevelt used the precedent set by Wilson to implement New Deal control of the economy during a national economic crisis. World War II brought a further expansion:
  • During World War II, shipbuilding, mining, transportation and manufacturing were directed by the government.
  • Comprehensive wage and price controls were instituted, goods rationed and major changes in labour laws were made.
  • And 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, including American citizens and resident aliens, were forced into internment camps.

    Abridgements of civil liberties and economic freedoms during crises were usually supposed to be temporary, only to be revived subsequently.

    Source: Nina Totenberg (legal affairs correspondent), Presidential Powers, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, September 20, 2001.

    For NPR tape (requires audio player) http://www.npr.org/ramfiles/atc/20010920.atc.18.ram

    For more on Abuse of Power http://www.ncpa.org/pd/govern/govern1.html

    FMF\3 October 2001
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