It’s the start of a new year, and a politically charged one at that. With campaign season approaching, Republicans will have the opportunity to take control of the Senate as well as keep control in the House. If this happens, an already tumultuous relationship between Congress and President Obama will likely become intolerable.
In his 2013 State of the Union address to Congress, Obama laid out several items on his agenda for last year including passing legislation on climate change, reducing gun violence and immigration reform. Now a year later, there has been little legislative progress on any of these issues. The government has had bigger problems to tackle: enough division to lead to a 16-day government shutdown, numerous problems with the ACA and the backlash of the NSA leaks.
There is no question at this point that something needs to be done about the stalemate in Congress and Obama is probably right in stating that the division cannot and should not prevent the government from performing its duties. But is giving Congress an ultimatum and parading what the president can do with his executive power the right way to go about getting laws passed? Probably not.
President Obama has resorted to using executive powers in the past when he hasn’t gotten his way and, in his 2014 State of the Union address, he promised to continue wielding what power he has in order to get something accomplished in government.
The problem is that the president resorts unilateral action if even the smallest indication is given that his agenda is being threatened. For the first couple years of its existence, the Obama administration was far more willing to work with Congress. Then again, that was when Democrats controlled the House. Since Republicans gained control in 2010, executive action has taken an upward turn. For example, the president acted without Congress on issues such as No Child Left Behind reform and immigration reform following midterm elections in 2010.
Obama has vowed to take even further action on his own on issues such as minimum wage, retirement savings, family policies, job training, unemployment, environment, and education if Congress is unwilling to cooperate in 2014.
This is not to say that the president should never use the power given to him by the Constitution. In fact, nearly every president since George Washington has issued executive orders in one way or another. However, there are checks and balances laid out in that same document for a reason: no one branch of government should have total control over the laws that it produces. This is why the legislative branch is expected to make laws, the executive branch is expected to enforce them and the judicial branch is expected to uphold them so long as they don’t interfere with the Constitution.
So when the president decides that it is necessary to resort to acting alone, he should do so erring on the side of caution. This means not making threats to Congress and considering the consequences of going over its head on certain issues. In particular, the president should probably avoid taking individual action when bipartisan progress is being made. In the cases of the aforementioned No Child Left Behind and immigration reform following the 2010 midterm elections, there did seem to be interest in taking action on both sides of the aisle.
Similarly, even though both Democrats and Republicans agree on improving upward mobility for the poor, suggesting a possible step toward increasing minimum wage, the president has decided to take matters into his own hands once again. It probably won’t be long now before Obama makes good on his promise to increase the minimum wage for federal contractor workers to $10.10 per hour.
From a policy perspective, there is a lot that goes into getting an issue onto the national agenda including advocacy, research, reports, time and money. It’s discouraging to think that an issue that has demanded the attention of so many people for such a long period of time can be put in the hands of one person to decide its fate.
Again, checks and balances exist for a reason. If a bill doesn’t get passed into law it should be reworked and revised until there are enough members to reasonably agree on its merits, especially when a comprehensive bipartisan bill seems feasible. If a bill is voted down the first time around, the president does not need to immediately resort to taking matters into his own hands just because he is free to do so.
As I said on my own recent article, which mentioned the $10.10 minimum wage change, “after stressing the value of compromise and unity throughout his speech, Obama chose to use his powers as president to cut Republican leaders out of the minimum wage debate. I fully support this measure, but I just find his message to be inconsistent.”