The Norms Obama Broke

Sean Trende is concerned about the unintended consequences of Obama’s executive action:

Contrary to some of the louder reactions, our Republic can withstand this breach. The real problem is that our history suggests that once these norms are violated, Humpty Dumpty can’t be put back together again. We see this with the sorry state of our judicial nomination process. What probably started with an arguably justified filibuster by Republicans and conservative Democrats of Abe Fortas’ nomination as chief justice of the Supreme Court (he really did have some ethical issues), escalated to the defeat of Robert Bork on ideological grounds and a blockade by Democrats of many of George H.W. Bush’s nominees in the final years of his term, to a more extensive blockade of many of Bill Clinton’s nominees for most of his term by Republicans, to the filibuster of many of George W. Bush’s Court of Appeals nominees by Democrats, to Republican threats of dismantling the judicial filibuster in response, to Republican filibusters of Obama’s appellate and District Court nominations, to the actual dismantling of the judicial filibuster by Democrats.

Both parties played a role in these latter developments, and the Bush presidency clearly saw its fair share of broken norms (using the threat of budget reconciliation to pass tax cuts; the midterm firings of U.S. attorneys). But this proves nothing. The point is that once you start down a road, you don’t go back. No one who voted to filibuster Fortas would have agreed that the endgame would be routine filibustering of District Court nominations and the beginning of the end of the filibuster, but that’s exactly what happened. No one really thought that the creation of reconciliation would enable the enactment of $1.3 trillion in tax cuts. And so forth.

Scott Lemieux dismisses such worries:

Both the second Bush administration and the actions of Republicans in Congress make it abundantly clear that the next Republican in the Oval Office is going to push toward – and probably beyond – the limits of his legal authority, no matter what Obama does. (For instance, George W Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program, established by executive order, contradicted a statute outright, which Obama’s order does not.) If hypothetical president Rand Paul wants to refuse to enforce the Civil Rights Act, he’s not going to be dissuaded because Obama refused to act on immigration.

Drum thinks the whole thing is politically brilliant:

Is there a price to be paid for this? If you think that maybe, just maybe, Republicans were willing to work with Obama to pass a few constructive items, then there’s a price. Those items might well be dead in the water. If you don’t believe that, the price is zero. I’m more or less in that camp. And you know what? Even the stuff that might have been passable—trade authority, the Keystone XL pipeline, a few tweaks to Obamacare—I’m either opposed to or only slightly in favor of in the first place. If they don’t happen, very few Democrats are going to shed any real tears.

That leaves only presidential appointments, and there might be a downside there if you think that initially Republicans were prepared to be halfway reasonable about confirming Obama’s judges and agency heads. I kinda doubt that, but I guess you never know. This might be a genuine downside to unleashing the tea party beast.

Yuval Levin feels Obama is overstepping:

If the Constitution is merely a technical legal document, it might (perhaps) be possible to defend this action as somehow within the bounds of the president’s enforcement discretion. But because the constitution creates a political order—a structure for the political life of an actual society—it is very difficult to sustain such a defense in the real world. That combination of factors means that a judge might well sustain the president’s action as minimally defensible if it was challenged in court but the Congress cannot consider it so. And both would be playing their proper constitutional roles.

Suderman suggests a remedy:

If members of Congress think actions beyond a certain size and scope should be illegal, then they ought to write a law explicitly saying so, tightly and clearly defining how, when, and under what circumstances the executive is allowed to act.

But Ilya Somin doubts that will solve the problem:

Even if Congress were more assertive, it could not prevent the president from exercising extremely broad discretion in a world where almost everyone is a federal criminal, and he has to pick and choose a small fraction of those criminals to go after. If we truly want to limit executive discretion and selective enforcement of laws, the best way to do so is to cut back on the scope of federal law to the point where the president has the resources to go after all or most offenders. Better still, federal law could be limited to those activities for which there is a broad consensus that they really are serious offenses that cannot be left to the states, and must be targeted by the federal government. If a president still chose not to enforce them, or did so only selectively, he (and his party, if they choose support his actions) would suffer a tremendous political backlash.