In comments made today, President Obama implied that Congress may be sidelined by his efforts to pursue his policy agenda in the coming year. With the House of Representatives still in Republican hands and the possibility existing for them to gain control of the Senate after the 2014 mid-term elections, it remains unlikely that President Obama will find much success in achieving direct legislative action. Despite opposition in Congress, Obama is calling 2014 a “Year of Action” and plans to use the tools of executive orders and direct appeals to the American public in order to implement his policy goals.
Among the objectives that Obama seeks to achieve are further changes to immigration policy, economic reforms to address the sluggish recovery and growing income inequality, expansion of gay rights, and new environmental regulations. The president has already used executive orders to address aspects of some of these issues in the past. For example, he ended the deportation of several categories of undocumented immigrants and the EPA has already modified some carbon emission regulations. On each occasion he expressed a preference for direct legislative action, but stated that he would use his executive authority when Congress failed to act. “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone,” Obama told reporters today. Many political observers have noted that President Obama is perhaps at his most successful in “campaign mode” where he directly takes his message to people, so perhaps it should not be surprising that Congress might be sidelined in this process.
Obama is hardly the first president to make extensive use of executive orders, nor is he the first president to find himself consistently at odds with a hostile Congress. For comparison, his predecessor George W. Bush issued just short of 300 executive orders during his two terms in office and was faced with a Congress controlled by the opposing party in his second term, much like Obama faces today. To date Obama has issued 165 in his nearly six years in office and enjoyed a friendly Congress during his first term, as Bush did. So it is not the sheer number of these orders that is controversial, nor the composition of Congress at the time, but rather the content of those orders and the apparent contempt for Congress President Obama is accused of displaying.
His conservative critics, both in the Congress and the media, see his executive orders as a blatant attempt to subvert the concept of separation of powers and to empower the executive over the legislature. They argue that only Congress should have the authority to implement policies such as immigration reform, gun control policy, environmental regulation, etc. and that Obama is overstepping his authority. Obama and his supporters would reply that if Congress would take action on those items themselves, he would not need to use executive orders to address them. But how is “action” defined? Does “action” mean to follow the course that the president prescribes, or is Congress free to determine its own path? That is what Obama’s critics contend, that he defines “action” only as following his preferred course. This again shows how this current conflict between the president and Congress is not a new issue.
The president and the Congress have been at odds since the founding of the country, and in a sense that is exactly what the Framers intended when they designed this system of government. President Bush found himself in similar situations during his tenure in office, as did President Clinton before him. In fact one could argue that it is when both the president and Congress are in agreement that the government might be at its most “dangerous” in terms of threatening the rights of the people.
With the State of the Union speech right around the corner, it is likely that more rhetoric on this topic will be heard from both sides. President Obama will continue this course of taking his message directly to the people, and Republicans in Congress will continue to argue that he is overstepping his bounds. But with so many key items on his agenda, and so little movement on many of these issues, it should come as no surprise that President Obama will continue to look to keep Congress sidelined if that is what will lead to progress on his objectives.
By: Christopher V. Spencer