Co-authored by Abigail Finkelman, Justice Program Assistant at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
With Congress mired in gridlock, President Obama has vowed to use "a pen and a phone" to accomplish some of his policy goals. Last week, he doubled down by promising to act on one of the nation's most divisive and important issues -- immigration -- before the rapidly approaching end of summer. Such executive action has outraged his political foes. To be sure, any ambitious path of executive action must be conducted in a manner consistent with the law and the appropriate role of coordinate branches. But should we snap to attention when we hear hyperventilating about his supposed abuse of power? At least so far, hardly.
All presidents have significant power to advance policy goals through executive action. That power is limited by the Constitution, above all else. The Supreme Court has made it clear that when Congress has not acted, and no federal law blocks it, the president has considerable leeway to act. Through the years, presidents of both parties have used the tools at hand. Ronald Reagan reined in regulatory agencies. Bill Clinton declared major swaths of land off limits for development, and cracked down on tobacco. George W. Bush made major moves to limit stem cell research. And presidents (including this one) have used, and often abused, executive authority when it comes to national security, often moving in secret.
Where does President Obama stack up in this hall of presidents? In fact, so far, he has not been especially more aggressive than his predecessors. He issued executive orders at a slower pace than any president since Grover Cleveland. Quantity is not quality, but the orders he has issued have not been particularly bold -- no seizing steel mills (as Harry Truman did) or sending the National Guard to Little Rock (as Dwight Eisenhower did). One unilateral power clearly given to the president by the Constitution is the pardon power. Here, too, Obama has issued fewer pardons and grants of clemency to prisoners serving unjust sentences than most presidents.
This has not stopped his political opponents from screaming that he is abusing his power. The House of Representatives recently voted to sue him for one act of supposed overreaching: delays in implementing the employer mandate and other parts of the Affordable Care Act. Set aside the weirdness of such a claim (this is the same House that wants to repeal the same law). Once a bill is passed by Congress, the executive branch has the authority to execute it. Realistically, putting complex statutes such as the ACA into place will have bumps in the road. In this case, it turned out that the ACA could not be accomplished as quickly as hoped -- in part because several states refused to cooperate. But presidents have delayed implementation of laws in the past without arousing ire. George W. Bush used his executive authority in 2004 to waive penalty fees for seniors who signed up late for Medicare Part D, another contentious health care law.
Will the president's use of executive power to advance his goals on immigration reform be constitutional? Depends. No president has authority to do a complete immigration overhaul by fiat. And we don't fully know what is contemplated, which must of course meet the test of legality. But this president, as any president, has ample room for action. He has asked for a set of formal recommendations from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and has looked at expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to allow for deferred deportations, at the discretion of federal prosecutors. It makes perfect sense for the president to use his finite resources in a way that is fiscally responsible and protects the public interest. Indeed, he has already done so on a smaller scale two years ago when he created DACA to ceased deportation of young immigrants who met certain criteria.
The government cannot deport everyone; it simply doesn't have the capacity. Prioritizing deporting violent criminals is hardly earth-shattering, or Constitution-shattering. Law enforcement and prosecutors exercise discretion all the time in determining which cases to investigate and prosecute. In the real world of an "under-resourced" system, choosing how to allocate the resources that Congress does give him is clearly within the president's purview.
Our government functions on a system of checks and balances. It's true that the Constitution grants Congress more powers than the president. But, as William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, said during a debate in Parliament in 1817, "the possession of great power necessarily implies great responsibility" (150 years later, Spider-Man agreed). A paralyzed Congress has abdicated its responsibility and spurred the president to act. President Obama is simply is doing what he must do to keep the United States running.