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Who’s Responsible for the Executive Branch?

1:13 PM, May 17, 2013 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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In his prepared remarks on the IRS’s targeting of his political opponents, President Obama said that “we’re going to hold the responsible parties accountable,” but only once we determine “who is responsible.”  In today’s Wall Street Journal, Kim Strassel offers some helpful thoughts on determining responsibility, writing that it’s really not all that hard — and, indeed, it’s not.

obama walks alone

According to the IRS’s own website, “The IRS is a bureau of the Department of the Treasury.”  Under the heading, “Statutory Authority,” the IRS site reads: 

 “The IRS is organized to carry out the responsibilities of the secretary of the Treasury under section 7801 of the Internal Revenue Code.  The secretary has full authority to administer and enforce the internal revenue laws and has the power to create an agency to enforce these laws.  The IRS was created based on this legislative grant.”

The Department of the Treasury, in turn, was established in 1789, the same year that the government under our Constitution began.  The Treasury website reads,

“The First Congress of the United States was called to convene in New York on March 4, 1789, marking the beginning of government under the Constitution.  On September 2, 1789, Congress created a permanent institution for the management of government finances:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That there shall be a Department of Treasury, in which shall be the following officers, namely: a Secretary of the Treasury, to be deemed head of the department; a Comptroller, an Auditor, a Treasurer, a Register, and an Assistant to the Secretary of the Treasury, which assistant shall be appointed by the said Secretary.”

As this language suggests, Congress was empowered to establish the Department of the Treasury and the offices that would compose its leadership.  However, the decisions about who should fill those posts (made with the advice and consent of the Senate), and the responsibility for how to run the department (or any executive department), was not Congress’s to grant.  Rather, that power was granted by the Constitution itself, which reads, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.”

So, in short, the IRS is a part of the Treasury Department, the Treasury Department exercises a part of the executive power, the executive power — in its entirety — is vested in the president, and Barack Obama is president.

Unity in the executive was supposed to focus responsibility, not blur it.  In Federalist 70, President Washington’s appointee as the first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, responded to claims that we should have a multi-headed executive (an idea that was advanced, and defeated, at the Constitutional Convention).  Hamilton wrote,

 “[O]ne of the weightiest objections to a plurality in the executive…is that it tends to conceal faults and destroy responsibility.  Responsibility is of two kinds — to censure and to punishment.  The first is the more important of the two, especially in an elective office.  Men in public trust will much oftener act in such a manner as to render them unworthy of being any longer trusted, than in such a manner as to make them obnoxious to legal punishment.  But the multiplication of the executive adds to the difficulty of detection in either case.  It often becomes impossible, amidst mutual accusations, to determine on whom the blame or the punishment of a pernicious measure, or series of pernicious measures, ought really to fall.  It is shifted from one to another with so much dexterity, and under such plausible appearances, that the public opinion is left in suspense about the real author.  The circumstances which may have led to any national miscarriage or misfortune are sometimes so complicated that where there are a number of actors who may have had different degrees and kinds of agency, though we may clearly see upon the whole that there has been mismanagement, yet it may be impracticable to pronounce to whose account the evil which may have been incurred is truly chargeable.

…[I]n a word…all multiplication of the executive is rather dangerous than friendly to liberty.”

Thankfully, we have a unitary executive, whose responsibility over all aspect of “the executive Power” — a power that he alone is vested with under the Constitution — is abundantly clear.

Jeffrey H. Anderson is executive director of the newly formed 2017 Project, which is working to advance a conservative reform agenda.

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