Activists urge Obama to go rogue, sidestep Congress
By Stephen Dinan
The Washington Times
Thursday, December 5, 2013
President Obama's repeated use of presidential powers is causing a tough problem — his own supporters now expect him to use it to achieve everything they want.
From immigration to the minimum wage, congressional Democrats and liberal activists this week urged Mr. Obama to declare an end run around Capitol Hill, assert executive authority and make as much progress as he can on the expansive agenda he laid out for his second term.
A day after Mr. Obama denounced income inequality, progressive lawmakers said he should take the lead by issuing an executive order requiring all federal contractors to pay workers more than the minimum wage. A dozen lawmakers and immigration activists held a news conference outside the Capitol on Thursday asking him to halt all deportations as a down payment on an eventual immigration bill.
"To not use his executive authority is not just unstrategic; it is cruel," said Tania Unzueta, a strategist with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
On immigration, Mr. Obama raised expectations when, after years of denying he had such powers, he issued a policy last year saying he no longer would deport young illegal immigrants, the "Dreamers" who were brought to the U.S. as minors by their parents and are considered the most sympathetic cases. He said he was using prosecutorial discretion.
More than two dozen House Democrats have written a letter to Mr. Obama saying he can expand that authority to encompass nearly all 11 million illegal immigrants.
Presidents regularly claim broad powers, and Mr. Obama's own list of assertions is long. He committed the U.S. to military action in Libya without congressional authorization, he has tweaked interpretations to education, welfare and health care laws, and he has tested the limits of his recess appointment powers in a case that is pending before the Supreme Court.
Mr. Obama's base, though, wants to see more — as he learned last week on a trip to the West Coast, where he was met with hecklers.
One man interrupted the president's immigration speech to urge him to halt all deportations, just as he did for the Dreamers. Mr. Obama said he didn't have that much power.
Hours later, as Mr. Obama ticked off his agenda at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser, a man in the audience repeatedly called out "executive order."
"Somebody keeps on yelling, 'Executive order.' Well, I'm going to actually pause on this issue because a lot of people have been saying this lately on every problem, which is, just sign an executive order, and we can pretty much do anything and basically nullify Congress," the president said — immediately drawing approving applause from his audience.
"Wait, wait, wait, before everybody starts clapping — that's not how it works," Mr. Obama said. "We got this Constitution. We got this whole thing about separation of powers and branches."
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist, said Mr. Obama telegraphed this year that he would use presidential powers when he ran into problems getting his agenda through Congress.
"In light of Republican obstructionism, it should be no surprise to anyone that the administration is moving more and more toward executive action," Mr. Manley said. "The problem, however, is you can do a lot more via the legislative process than you can do through executive orders."
Mr. Obama's allies argue that Republicans have forced the confrontation by refusing to even debate the president's agenda.
They point to the House GOP's reluctance to bring an immigration bill to the floor, and to repeated efforts to overturn Obamacare and the president's environmental policies.
Those last two moves have left Mr. Obama to act on his own.
On Thursday, he issued a memo to the heads of all federal departments and agencies telling them that by 2020, 20 percent of the energy they use must come from renewable resources such as wind or solar. That is more than twice the current rate.
On health care, Mr. Obama has made numerous interpretations that seem to conflict with his own law, including unilaterally suspending the employer mandate, deciding Americans can get subsidies even if they aren't in state-run health care exchanges, and most recently ruling that states still could approve insurance plans even if they violate the law.
Administration officials said that last move relied on prosecutorial discretion — the same authority the president cited for halting deportations of Dreamers.
Presidents argue that they are allowed to interpret the laws, and President George W. Bush regularly issued signing statements laying out how he saw the laws Congress passed.
Mr. Obama criticized that practice and hasn't issued anywhere near the number of signing statements, but analysts said he is still stretching the limits of his power by usurping Congress and the courts.
"The problem of what the president is doing is that he is not simply posing a danger to the constitutional system; he is becoming the very danger the Constitution was designed to avoid: that is, the concentration of power in any single branch," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, testifying about executive powers to the House Judiciary Committee this week.
"We've had the radical expansion of presidential powers under both President Bush and President Obama. We have what many once called an imperial presidency model of largely unchecked authority," Mr. Turley said. "And with that trend, we also have the continued rise of this fourth branch. We have agencies that are now quite large that issue regulations."
Nowhere is the fight more acute than on immigration, where activists have taken to blocking detention facilities and chaining themselves to buses to try to halt deportations.
Mr. Obama has carved nearly 500,000 Dreamers out of deportation, but the activists want a broader halt — at least to include the parents of the Dreamers.
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who led Thursday's rally outside the Capitol, said while it's probably true the president can't halt all deportations, he can take some more steps, such as not applying the full 10-year bar of admission to those who enter the country illegally.
"He's probably legally correct saying, 'I can't do that, are you crazy?' But OK, what are the options?" he said. "The first time we approached him on the Dreamers: 'No, can't do that, I don't have the power.' We think there are options that do extend the power."