State, national columnists

Is Obama overreaching with executive orders?

President Obama says he plans to advance an ambitious policy agenda this year “with or without Congress.” His latest decision: an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour.

“I have got a pen and I have got a phone, and I can use that pen to sign executive orders,” the president has said in recent weeks. He echoed the theme in his State of the Union address to Congress this week, saying if legislators refused to act, he would act alone.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, denounced the president’s approach, writing Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal, “When a president can pick and choose which laws to follow and which to ignore, he is no longer a president.”

Do President Obama’s executive orders exceed his constitutional power? Or is he using all of the tools at his disposal in the face of congressional opposition? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the Red-Blue America columnists, weigh in.

Joel Mathis

Two words: “Unitary executive.”

You might not remember those words – Republicans in Congress certainly don’t seem to. They were the name of a theory, advocated by Dick Cheney in particular, under which the George W. Bush administration unilaterally chose to ignore Congress and its legal obligations, pretty much whenever it chose.

A law against warrantless wiretapping? Ignore it.

Treaties against torture? Ignore them.

Don’t like the new law Congress passed? Don’t veto it – sign it, but add a “signing statement” explaining why you won’t actually obey it.

All of this happened with the near-total acquiescence of congressional Republicans throughout the Bush administration. (Ron Paul, as always, was the exception.) Much like their love of fiscal austerity and the filibuster, the GOP rediscovered its fidelity to the rule of law with alacrity in 2009, when President Obama took office.

It’s clear what’s going on here: Republicans don’t believe in a constrained, limited presidency. They believe in constraining and limiting Democrats. It’s not the same thing, and observers can be forgiven for rolling their eyes at the crocodile tears of self-styled defenders of the Constitution.

This isn’t to let Democrats off the hook. They spent the Bush years complaining about abuses of power, and now beg the president to bypass Congress wherever possible. Cynical power-grabbing is a bipartisan exercise.

And yes, the president is among the cynical power-grabbers: “Any Ppresident takes an oath to, ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,’ ” he said when he first ran for president, suggesting he would rein in the excesses of the Bush administration. “The American people need to know where we stand on these issues before they entrust us with this responsibility – particularly at a time when our laws, our traditions, and our Constitution have been repeatedly challenged by this administration.”

So much for that. No matter: That ship has sailed. The cat is out of the bag, the worms out of the can: If Republicans want to limit the presidency, let them prove it when one of their own is in the White House.

Ben Boychuk

Fact is, U.S. presidents do have vast powers under Article II of the Constitution, especially when it comes to waging war and protecting national security. But “vast” isn’t the same as “unlimited.” Too many presidents – Republican and Democrat – have stretched the interpretation of their powers to the limit, and sometimes beyond.

In that sense, President Obama is no different from past presidents. But in crucial ways, he has used and abused his powers in ways his predecessors could only fantasize about.

Unilaterally raising the federal minimum wage for government contractors may have Republicans in Congress pulling their hair out this week, but that’s among the least of this president’s usurpations of their lawmaking authority.

Committing American airpower in 2011 to help overthrow Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi without so much as consulting Congress was a milestone in presidential overreach. Obama called it “leading from behind.” In the aftermath, four U.S. State Department employees were killed in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, and Libya is splitting along old tribal lines and descending further into chaos.

Obama decided in 2012 that Congress wasn’t doing enough to reform U.S. immigration laws. So he signed an executive order barring the Immigration and Customs Enforcement service from deporting minors and relatives of U.S. service members living in the United States illegally.

The president’s justification was at least somewhat plausible: “prosecutorial discretion” gives him some leeway on enforcement. But immigration enforcement officers complain, with justice, that Obama’s orders have effectively tied their hands.

But when the president decided to delay his health care law’s “employer mandate,” he engaged in nothing less than wholesale lawlessness. The reason for the delay boils down to cynical political calculation: forcing employers with more than 50 workers to provide health insurance ahead of the 2014 midterm elections would likely disrupt the economy and be bad for Democrats. Nothing more to it than that.

Congress has for too long delegated far too much of its power to the executive branch. It’s past time the legislative branch used its authority to hold this president to account, starting with enforcing his ill-conceived health care reform law.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Website: www.facebook.com/benandjoel

Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis


Discussion | 5 comments

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  • DanielJanuary 31, 2014 - 3:21 am

    When you're void of any management skills and it's obvious that the libs and their lame stream oversold Obamas alleged intelligence, it's the only way to govern as a Hitlerean tyrant.

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  • The MisterJanuary 31, 2014 - 6:43 am

    It's not overreaching until someone stops him. In that he can get away with this is not Obama's fault... it is the fault of anyone who has ever taken the Constitutional oath to "protect and defend... against ALL enemies, foreign and domestic" and has done nothing about it. It's the fault of Congress for not initiating the impeachment process. It's the fault of ALL Americans stoopid enough to tolerate this tyrannical system that has supplanted our representative republic year after year, generation after generation.

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  • S KJanuary 31, 2014 - 7:35 am

    Not IMO, I want to him do more of it, wherever possible, legal, & constitutional, anything, anytime he can get around this do nothing party of no bunch of Republicans, the party that after 40+ years of being one caused me to become, "NON-DECLARED!!!"

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • patrickJanuary 31, 2014 - 11:25 am

    perhaps we should return America to the king of ENGLAND. I would really like to continue to celebrate the fourth of july and it's meaning. would you like to return to no choice?

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • S KJanuary 31, 2014 - 11:35 am

    I stand by what I said, WHEREVER and WHENEVER he LEGALLY can to bypass this NO>>NO>>NO> bunch of REPUGs!!!

    Reply | Report abusive comment
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