Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Executive Orders - What, Me Worry?

On the editorial pages of a newspaper that can scarcely pass up an opportunity to beat the drums for war, Ruth Marcus has taken up the horror of the executive order. She's not employing in the over-the-top rhetoric of Ross Douthat, but she is concerned about the ever-present slippery slope,
Every Democrat should be nervous about President Obama’s plan for unilateral action on immigration reform.

Not because of the impact on an already gridlocked Congress, or because it risks inflaming an increasingly hostile public. Democrats should be nervous about the implications for presidential power, and the ability of a future Republican president to act on his or her own.
Perhaps Democrats have short memories, because it seems to me that we saw ample evidence of what a Republican president can accomplish through executive orders when G.W. Bush signed a huge stack of them while on his way out of the White House. Leaving that aside for the moment, we're speaking specifically of executive orders that are being proposed because Congress cannot or will not do its job. I'm not particularly concerned about setting a precedent, as there's nothing particularly unique or special about what President Obama is proposing. For that matter, were the President to refrain from acting, I have no reason to believe that a future Republican president would exercise similar restraint.

The very first concern Marcus raises is interesting, but not in the way she imagines,
First, is there a limiting principle that would constrain the president’s authority to effectively legalize everyone in the country?
Obviously, when we're speaking of this type of executive action, we're speaking of a context in which the White House wants to address an issue on which Congress refuses to speak. Executive orders must be consistent with existing law, and if Congress is willing to pass legislation it can either avoid the need for an executive order or preempt the president's plan.

Marcus's slippery slope rests on the idea that, in the face of Congressional dysfunction, a President may stake out the most extreme position he can arguably take under existing law. That's possible -- but I'm not sure that it would be a bad thing -- not because I want Presidents to sidestep Congress, but because that type of action may be the only thing that is sufficient to light a fire under Congress's posterior such that it actually does its job. If Congress won't act when faced with the most extreme interpretations of existing law, it's a fair inference that the demagoguery of its members doesn't amount to much and that they find that interpretation to be acceptable. Would it be a bigger threat to democracy for the President to stake out extreme positions, presenting the loudest possible "put up or shut up" to Congress, or for the President to tiptoe up to the edges of what might inspire Congressional action while taking advantage of that institution's unwillingness to do its job?

Marcus also argues,
Second, is there a limiting principle that would constrain future presidents inclined against enforcing other laws with which they don’t agree — and on which they’ve been unable to convince Congress to act accordingly?
As previously noted, we're speaking of executive action taken in the face of congressional inaction. Although it is conceivable that a future president might refuse to enforce the laws favored by his own party, it's far more likely that such a president would be in a position to simply ask his party to amend the law.

If a President refuses to uphold the laws of the United States in a manner that Congress finds unacceptable, Congress has a well-known constitutional remedy: impeachment. If Congress chooses not to pursue a legislative remedy, and chooses not to initiate impeachment proceedings, it again becomes difficult to regard any table-thumping condemnations of a president as anything but noise.

The situation in which Marcus's concern might have some weight would be one in which the White House and one chamber of Congress is controlled by one party, and the other chamber of Congress is controlled by another. In such a scenario, the chamber aligned with the White House would have to be sufficiently supportive of the President's actions that it would refuse to support impeachment and conviction, but be unwilling or unable to pass legislation addressing the issue due to the divided government. But legislators have easy access to the media, to make their case against a president. The House of Representatives can slow down or shut down the government, or vote to impeach even if it expects that the Senate will acquit the president. The Senate can similarly slow down the government, not only by impeding the progress of legislation but also by putting the brakes on executive appointments, and can also shut down the government. The tools may not be as precise as would be ideal for the theoretical task at hand, but Congress is anything but powerless.

The fact that I'm not particularly impressed with Marcus's arguments should not be interpreted as my supporting the idea of the executive forming policy through executive orders on matters that are best addressed through legislation. My concern is less about the slippery slope -- a form of argument that can be applied to any action, no matter how trivial -- and is much more about what happens when Congress won't or can't perform its duties. Unlike Marcus or the various members of her employer's editorial board, I find the issue of greater concern to be the fact that we are involved in a new war in the Middle East predicated upon an authorization that cannot reasonably be said to apply to the present circumstances, yet Congress is content to let the war wage on while refusing to pass a new authorization bill that could define its goals or limit its scope. There's not even a hint of concern from the editorial board that we should have congressional authorization for war before we get into yet another armed conflict in the Middle East.

The Washington Post editorial board wants the President to commit ground forces, in the form of special forces, to the front lines of the war with ISIS. It is chomping at the bit for the President to declare direct war on what remains of the Assad regime, without any apparent concern for what would follow the collapse of that regime. But one thing about which the editorial board is conspicuously unconcerned? The absence of Congressional authorization for the present war, let alone the escalated, potentially disastrous war that they propose.

To put it mildly, I'm not thrilled that the President is proposing unilateral action in the face of congressional gridlock. It would be better if Congress would do its job. But at least in the context of executive orders we're speaking not of Marcus's slippery slope, but of the President's following precedents set by prior administrations, and proposing lawful orders that are consistent with existing law. When it comes to war, the Constitution attempts to create a clear framework for the separation of powers, with wars to be initiated by Congress. If you're going to pretend concern about a possible constitutional crisis, can't you give that one more than a shrug and a yawn?


  1. What happened to all that yap about the awesomeness of the "unitary executive"?

    1. As you know, that only applies when the President is a Republican.


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