Obama turning to executive power to get what he wants
By Anita Kumar
ASHINGTON (MCT) President Barack Obama came into office four years ago skeptical of pushing the power of the White House to the limit, especially if it appeared to be circumventing Congress.
Now, as he launches his second term, Obama has grown more comfortable wielding power to try to move his own agenda forward, particularly when a deeply fractured, often-hostile Congress gets in his way.
He's done it with a package of tools, some of which date to George Washington and some invented in the modern era of an increasingly powerful presidency. And he's done it with a frequency that belies his original campaign criticisms of predecessor George W. Bush, invites criticisms that he's bypassing the checks and balances of Congress and the courts, and whets the appetite of liberal activists who want him to do even more to advance their goals.
While his decision to send drones to kill U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism has garnered a torrent of criticism, his use of executive orders and other powers at home is deeper and wider.
He delayed the deportation of young illegal immigrants when Congress wouldn't agree. He ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence, which Congress halted nearly 15 years ago. He told the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, deciding that the 1996 law defining marriage as between a man and a woman was unconstitutional. He's vowed to act on his own if Congress didn't pass policies to address climate change.
Arguably more than any other president in modern history, he's using executive actions, primarily orders, to bypass or pressure a Congress where the opposition Republicans can block any proposal.
"It's gridlocked and dysfunctional. The place is a mess," said Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland. "I think (executive action) is an inevitable tool given what's happened."
Now that Obama has shown a willingness to use those tactics, advocacy groups, supporters and even members of Congress are lobbying him to do so more and more.
The Center for Progressive Reform, a liberal advocacy group composed of law professors, including Steinzor, has pressed Obama to sign seven executive orders on health, safety and the environment during his second term.
Seventy environmental groups wrote a letter urging the president to restrict emissions at existing power plants.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who chairs the Appropriations Committee, sent a letter to the White House asking Obama to ban federal contractors from retaliating against employees who share salary information.
Gay rights organizations recently demonstrated in front of the White House to encourage the president to sign an executive order to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity by companies that have federal contracts, eager for Obama to act after nearly two decades of failed attempts to get Congress to pass a similar bill.
"It's ridiculous that we're having to push this hard for the president to simply pick up a pen," said Heather Cronk, the managing director of the gay rights group GetEQUAL. "It's reprehensible that, after signing orders on gun control, cybersecurity and all manner of other topics, the president is still laboring over this decision."
The White House didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.
In January, Obama said he continued to believe that legislation was "sturdier and more stable" than executive actions, but that sometimes they were necessary, such as his January directive for the federal government to research gun violence.
"There are certain issues where a judicious use of executive power can move the argument forward or solve problems that are of immediate-enough import that we can't afford not to do it," the former constitutional professor told The New Republic magazine.
Presidents since George Washington have signed executive orders, an oft-overlooked power not explicitly defined in the Constitution. More than half of all executive orders in the nation's history nearly 14,000 have been issued since 1933.
Many serve symbolic purposes, from lowering flags to creating a new military medal. Some are used to form commissions or give federal employees a day off. Still others are more serious, and contentious: Abraham Lincoln releasing political prisoners, Franklin D. Roosevelt creating internment camps for Japanese-Americans, Dwight Eisenhower desegregating schools.
"Starting in the 20th century, we have seen more and more that have lawlike functions," said Gene Healy, a vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian research center, who's the author of "The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power."
Most presidents in recent history generally have issued a few hundred orders, and hundreds more memorandums and directives.
Jimmy Carter initiated a program designed to end discrimination at colleges. Ronald Reagan overturned price controls on domestic oil production. George H.W. Bush stopped imports of some semi-automatic firearms. Bill Clinton set aside large tracts of land as national monuments. George W. Bush made it easier for religious groups to receive federal dollars.
"The expectation is that they all do this," said Ken Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who wrote "With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power." "That is the typical way of doing things."
But, experts say, Obama's actions are more noticeable because as a candidate he was critical of Bush's use of power. In particular, he singled out his predecessor's use of signing statements, documents issued when a president signs a bill that clarifies his understanding of the law.
"These last few years we've seen an unacceptable abuse of power at home," Obama said in an October 2007 speech. "We've paid a heavy price for having a president whose priority is expanding his own power."
Yet Obama's use of power echoes that of his predecessors. For example, he signed 145 executive orders in his first term, putting him on track to issue as many as the 291 that Bush did in two terms.
John Yoo, who wrote the legal opinions that supported an expansion of presidential power after the 2001 terrorist attacks, including harsh interrogation methods that some called torture, said he thought that executive orders were sometimes appropriate when conducting internal management and implementing power given to the president by Congress or the Constitution but he thinks that Obama has gone too far.
"I think President Obama has been as equally aggressive as President Bush, and in fact he has sometimes used the very same language to suggest that he would not obey congressional laws that intrude on his commander-in-chief power," said Yoo, who's now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "This is utterly hypocritical, both when compared to his campaign stances and the position of his supporters in Congress, who have suddenly discovered the virtues of silence."
Most of Obama's actions are written statements aimed at federal agencies that are published everywhere from the White House website to the Federal Register. Some are classified and hidden from public view.
"It seems to be more calculated to prod Congress," said Phillip J. Cooper, the author of "By Order of the President: The Use and Abuse of Executive Direct Action." "I can't remember a president being that consistent, direct and public."
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