Monday, June 18, 2012

The Imperial Presidency

Not so long ago Democrats were up in arms over George W. Bush's "Imperial presidency". One of their big complaints was signing statements. These have been used for decades and are a way for a president to signal any reservations when signing a bill into law. Wikipedia notes

In July 2006, a task force of the American Bar Association stated that the use of signing statements to modify the meaning of duly enacted laws serves to "undermine the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers".[2] In fact, the Constitution does not authorize the President to use signing statements to circumvent any validly enacted Congressional Laws, nor does it authorize him to declare he will disobey such laws (or parts thereof). When a bill is presented to the President, the Constitution (Art. I) provides three choices: do nothing, sign the bill, or (if he disapproves of the bill) veto it in its entirety and return it to the House in which it originated, along with his written objections to it.
Note that all of this outrage was about new laws and how they will be implemented and enforced. Also, Bush's statements were often meant as a warning that he would be directing the Justice Department to file a constitutional challenge to all or part of a law rather than a blanket refusal to enforce the legislation.

So what are we to make of President Obama's new immigration policy? This is not a signing statement on a new law. He simply announced that parts of current law will no longer be enforced. It amounts to an entirely new law.

This is something that Obama had previously said he could not do. Less than eleven months ago he said this:

The idea of doing things on my own is very tempting, I promise you, not just on immigration reform. But that's not how our system works. That's not how our democracy functions

Apparently the President gave in to temptation. This is not the first time. His EPA has expanded its power over areas previously controlled by Congress such as mileage standards.

Regardless, this is his most naked power grab. Think of the precedent that this establishes. Could the President grant future tax breaks by announcing that he will not enforce tax laws above a certain percentage? How would this be different?

The President's argument that he is changing this policy because it is the right thing to do is flawed, partly because his new policy is not what he says it is. He claims that it is aimed at young people who were brought into this nation unwillingly as children but it affects people up to 30 years old. Many of those affected came here alone of their own volition instead of being carried along by parents.

But even if it was everything he says, it still sets an unconscionable president. Even if you think that Obama was justified, would you want to see this power in the hands of a President Cheney?

So where are the people who worried about Bush becoming an imperial president who was not answerable to Congress? Why are there no calls for impeachment?

I can think of a few possible reasons. It is possible that Obama's supporters are willing to overlook and transgressions done as part of his reelection campaign. Or they may see this as a desperate act of a failing president. Most worrisome is that they approve of Obama taking on new powers. When Obama was first elected many people wanted him to become a temporary dictator and "just fix things". They may be cheering that he is doing just that.

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