Mr. Executive Power


The greatest crisis of American democracy is not getting your way.

And when a sluggish republic hinders progress, it’s time to act. Just ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who advanced an astonishing argument the other day on the Senate floor: The president, explained Reid, is free to unilaterally craft immigration policy because we’ve tried to do that for years, and we can’t because they won’t let us.

Ah, they.: 

For those of you who have forgotten, in “The Federalist,” Paper 51, Publius writes: “In a republic, all the power surrendered by the people is submitted to the administration of a single government; and the usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments. … Then again, if ‘they don’t let you,’ well, feel free to disregard the previous 900,000 words.”

Today’s Democratic logic goes like this: If Congress is unable to pass progressive agenda items with a simple majority of legislators (and thankfully, that’s the case), the vote of a single person will do just fine. President Obama is, after all, on his “We Can’t Wait” tour. “We can’t wait for Congress to do its job,” Obama told supporters on a recent campaign stop. “So where they won’t act, I will. We’re going to look every single day to figure out what we can do without Congress.”

That’s the spirit!

One might forgive a little autocratic hyperbole in the heat of a campaign season, but Obama isn’t joking. He can’t wait. Only recently, he circumvented Congress on college loans and mortgages; he directed the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act; through rulemaking, he empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to effectively institute legislation that Democrats could not pass; he involved the United States in military action in Libya (the right kind of warring, apparently) without congressional consent; he installed four recess appointments without a recess; and that’s just for starters.

This week he couldn’t wait again. Even if you agree substantively with Obama’s decision to grant 800,000 young illegal immigrants a reprieve from deportation — as I do — having a president undo a perfectly legitimate legislative deadlock by simply ignoring the law is a precedent that should alarm everyone. So should Obama’s invocation of executive privilege in the Fast and Furious gunrunning investigation regarding a document that he supposedly knew nothing about.

No, Obama isn’t the first president to issue oodles of executive orders or expand and abuse the power of the presidency. Far from it. Yet, onlookers supposedly horrified by executive overreach a few years ago are doing a terrible job rationalizing it now.

A few months back, The New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal rationalized Obama’s abuse of executive power by deploying an age-old excuse for abuse: “Context and intent make all the difference.” No, they make no difference. That’s why we have embedded constitutional safeguards, safeguards that should be in place even if abuses are sanctioned by New York Times editorial board members.

The left claims there is an unprecedented level of obstructionism in Washington (failing to note that perhaps there is an unprecedented level of terrible legislation in need of obstruction) that necessitates alternative methods. Hey, maybe some of us believe that “do nothing” Congresses are the most productive. At the very least, Americans should be more comfortable with obstructionism than with executive unilateralism no matter what the outcome.

David Harsanyi is a columnist and senior reporter at Human Events. Follow him on Twitter @davidharsanyi.

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