Powers and Privileges of the United States President

From the lecture series: Understanding the US Government

By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

The president of the United States gets some legislative powers, and has the opportunity to enjoy executive privileges and issue executive orders. Read on to know what all a US president can and can not do, as there are checks by the Congress.

Seal of the US president with the US flag in the background.
The president of the United States is the Head of State as well as the Head of Government. (Image: danielfela/Shutterstock)

President’s Role in the Federal Budget

Every year, the president orders a budget to be drafted for the entire federal government that outlines how much money every agency, department, and commission should be allocated.

The White House has a special office, known as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), whose job is to assemble this budget. When the president is satisfied with what the OMB has assembled, the budget is sent to Capitol Hill.

Learn more about the tactic of filibustering in the Senate.

Passing the Budget in the House and the Senate

If the majority party in the House and the Senate are the same party as the president’s, then the committees take the president’s budget and treat it as sort of a rough draft.

If the House and the Senate are of a different party than the president’s, then the committee will essentially ignore the president’s proposal and draft a budget proposal of their own.

A budget is negotiated within those committees and is often considered on the floor of the House and the Senate, although sometimes Congress fails to pass a budget.

If the House and the Senate are able to agree upon and pass a budget, this budget does not go to the White House for the president’s signature.

If Congress never passes a budget, then they must decide how to appropriate money without the benefit of budget guidelines that have already been agreed-upon.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Continuing Resolution

The government’s new fiscal year always begins on October 1, and so the appropriations bills that fund the government departments are supposed to be approved before that date each year. Often, the process gets delayed over some political disagreements.

When that happens, Congress usually passes what is known as a continuing resolution, or CR. A CR is a way of maintaining current levels of funding for the government until the new funding levels can be agreed upon.

The CRs always come up with a deadline attached to them. If Congress has failed to pass all of the appropriations bills and, for some reason, cannot pass a CR, or a CR has expired, then the federal government experiences a shutdown because the government agencies do not have legislative authority to spend any money.

Executive Privileges of the President

A gavel with 3D illustration of the words 'Executive Privilege' written above it.
When a president invokes executive privilege, they make the legal claim that they are immune to legal challenges. (Image: Scott Maxwell LuMaxArt/Shutterstock)

Executive privilege is a sort of legal claim that presidents use when they have been challenged. When a president invokes executive privilege, they make the legal claim that they are immune to legal challenges and can withhold information that they believe might be harmful to the nation.

When a president asserts that they are immune from investigation, from criminal charges, or do not need to comply with subpoenas, they do so under the notion of executive privilege.

The logic behind executive privilege is that, as the highest-ranking elected government official in the United States, and the person who is technically its highest-ranking legal officer, the president is the keeper of the state and its laws, and, therefore, cannot be charged with breaking them. In this sense, presidents are deemed to be above the law.

Learn more about how a bill becomes a law.

Power to Issue Executive Orders

A power that presidents have as chief executive of a government is the power to issue executive orders.

Legal document with 3D illustration of  words 'President Executive Order' written on its top.
An executive order is an instruction from the president that has the force of law. (Image: hafakot/Shutterstock)

An executive order is an instruction from the president that has the force of law, just like a law that has been passed by Congress. An executive order can be overturned; Congress can nullify an executive order by passing a contradicting law.

Also, a president can revoke prior presidents’ executive orders by issuing orders that contradict what their predecessors have done.

President as Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces

The power of being the commander-in-chief of the armed forces is granted to the president in Article II of the Constitution.

While it is somewhat internationally unusual to have a civilian as the head of the military, especially one as large and powerful as the United States Armed Forces, the Constitution designed the power in this way to ensure that America’s military power could be checked by political forces.

Learn more about the role of incumbency.

The War Powers Act

The War Powers Act requires a president to report to Congress and explain any military action within 48 hours of a troop deployment. Further, it requires the president to terminate any troop deployment or use of force within 60 to 90 days, unless Congress extends or authorizes it. Finally, Congress can compel the president to recall troops, after the 90 days expire. Of course, Congress can always opt to declare war, instead.

In general, the War Powers Act has been repeatedly violated since Congress adopted it in 1973, demonstrating Congress’s relative inability to control a president’s capacity to engage in military actions.

The primary control that Congress exerts over the military is through, what is typically called, its ‘power of the purse’.

By controlling appropriations for the Pentagon and the armed services, Congress can indirectly influence how a president might conduct a war. But overall, Congress is an ineffective body when it comes to engaging in foreign-policy or military strategy. On these matters, the presidency has the upper hand.

Common Questions about the Powers and Privileges of the United States President

Q: Who gets the copies of the president’s budget sent to Capitol Hill?

Copies of the president’s budget are delivered to the House Budget Committee and the Senate Committee on the Budget.

Q: What is a continuing resolution?

If Congress fails to pass all of the appropriations bills, it usually passes a continuing resolution. A continuing resolution, or CR, is a way of maintaining current levels of funding for government until the new funding levels can be agreed upon.

Q What does the War Powers Act entail?

The War Powers Act requires a president to report to Congress and explain any military action within 48 hours of a troop deployment. Further, it requires the president to terminate any troop deployment or use of force within 60 to 90 days, unless Congress extends or authorizes it.

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