The carping is familiar. President Obama has “overreached” and abused his authority by releasing terrorist prisoners without notifying Congress and in promulgating new environmental rules. But, as usual, Republicans have few remedies beyond press releases and the promises of hearings.
That’s the state of play in Washington: trench warfare that has lasted more than three years.
Obama began 2014 vowing that he would no longer be sidelined by Republican obstructionists — and he appears to be making good on his threat. More executive actions are likely on the way, as the president may well impose deportation curbs if the GOP won’t constructively work toward immigration-reform legislation.
House Republicans should stop and consider it — not because of the political benefit the party might, maybe, enjoy by helping to broker an immigration solution. No, the better reason is this: If they truly fear the unchecked growth of presidential power, then their best option is to come to the table and force compromise. It’s the one sure way to keep Obama from going cowboy (or, in their minds, tyrant).
As it is, the toxic atmosphere in the capital and the nearly total lack of trust between the two sides has brought about a situation that should make few who care about functional government happy. As evidenced by the continuing battles over the Affordable Care Act, which was passed only with Democratic votes, actions that carry the patina of bipartisanship enjoy wider public support. But the current political stalemate has made such outcomes almost impossible.
That leaves Obama to act on his own. And not only does that engender further mistrust, but it risks fundamentally altering the dynamic of power between the executive and legislative branches.
Take the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed carbon-emissions rules. Cap-and-trade died a grisly death on the floor of the Senate in 2010 (coal-state Democrats helped slay it, too), but now the principle lives on in the new power-plant regs.
Republicans have long refused to engage at all on the subject of global warming even as it has slowly moved closer to the forefront of domestic policy issues. Brokering a legislative compromise might have made the rules more industry-friendly and, politically, the GOP would have been viewed as a serious actor on an issue that has Americans increasingly worried. But that now may be a lost opportunity.
And Obama’s lack of restraint doesn’t end there. The Guantanamo prisoner transfer is a prime example. When the White House objected to a provision in the defense authorization bill that required congressional notification 30 days prior to a prisoner transfer at Guantanamo, it did so through a mechanism that became notorious in the George W. Bush years for its potential for abuse: the presidential signing statement. That gave Obama the freedom, the administration argues, to ignore the provision as it saw fit when it came to swapping five Taliban fighters for POW Bowe Bergdahl. “We have repeatedly noted concerns with this requirement,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, maintained on Monday.
Would it have gone down this way if the White House viewed the GOP as better partners? It’s impossible to say. But the end result is a tattered law that was passed to rein in the executive branch and now has largely been eviscerated. Congress loses and the president wins — again. And that’s usually what happens in these situations.
You would think the GOP might have learned a lesson about the cost of total obstructionism after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last year triggered the nuclear option and did away with the filibuster for executive-branch nominees. Since then, Republicans have been forced to sit on their hands as one Obama nominee after another has sailed through the Senate, which has had the effect, among other things, of tipping the federal appeals courts in favor of Democratic judges. Somewhere along the line, a deal could have been cut that would have preserved the filibuster for use when it was truly needed.
In fact, when you stand back and search amid the ruins, it’s hard to see what exactly the GOP has gotten out of its Hell No, We Won’t Go Along strategy. Yes, the president’s approval rating is down — and yes, the incessant attacks on Obamacare have played a role in that. But there are signs that the issue is losing steam with the midterm electorate just when the party needs it the most. And moreover, who is even less popular than the president? Right: congressional Republicans.
The best press the GOP has gotten here in years is when it actually cut a budget deal and avoided a government shutdown. But that’s been the outlier. And as the summer arrives and the midterms loom, what will the House be doing with their lazy days, trying to reach a compromise on immigration reform or probing #Benghazi even further? You already know the answer. And if and when the administration rolls out a new policy on deportations (time-stamped shortly before Election Day), Republicans will again holler about overreach but won’t have much else to show.
This is not to suggest the GOP should ever just roll over on the president’s agenda, but its continued opposition to just about everything is a misread of the current state of executive power. The playing field is tilted in the president’s favor. Despite Obama’s frequent protestations to the contrary, the modern presidency comes equipped with a formidable array of tools, ones that let him bypass Congress with impunity.
The monster is loose. With each passing week, Obama shows that he is growing more comfortable with pushing the limits of office — and he could depart in two years having acted almost on his own on everything from healthcare to education, climate change and immigration.
If he does, he ends up with a legacy. The Republicans? Maybe a t-shirt.