Political Animal


November 21, 2012 12:33 PM What Obama Can Do Without Congress

By Ed Kilgore

Thanks to the de facto “sixty vote threshold” Republicans imposed on the Senate via abuse of the filibuster, and then the enhanced power the GOP gained in 2010 by winning control of the House and picking up additional Senate seats, it’s been often assumed that the Obama administration has little choice but to compromise actively with congressional Republicans, or—as has actually been the case more often than not—simply give up on enacting key elements of his agenda.

Throughout his first term, however, many progressives have complained that the president has made too little use of executive powers that require no congressional sign-off. Now that Obama has been re-elected and has less to lose, we can expect these complaints to be revived, and sure enough, TNR’s Tim Noah has published a “Unilateralist Manifesto” that lays out seven steps Obama could take—some very audacious, others simply annoying to Republicans—to make significant changes in public policy on his own.

You can and should read the whole thing, but to summarize, Noah recommends (1) executive action to curb carbon emissions—especially via EPA regulation—along with cancellation of the Keystone Excel Pipeline; (2) aggressive use of waivers to provide additional paths to legal status for undocumented workers and their families; (3) firing Federal Housing Finance Agency acting director Ed DeMarco and get someone into the job who is willing to let Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac participate in federal mortgage relief efforts; (4) speeding up promulgation of regulations reforming the credit-reporting agencies; (5) serious steps to punish colleges feeding tuition hikes through irresponsible spending (especially insanely lavish pay for administrators; (6) an attack on rising Medicare costs via new rules making “bundling” of services associated with particular procedures mandatory; (7) eliminating the “family farm” exemption to child labor laws; and (8) reclassifying home care workers as eligible for minimum wage protection.

Noah does not address the obvious objection to his agenda that it will endanger Republican cooperation on big fiscal issues. But “pressure”works both ways: an administration more aggressive about using its executive powers can actually improve its own leverage in the fiscal negotiations. Yes, Republicans may seek legislative action to block some or all of these steps, but with enhanced Democratic strength in the Senate and the president’s veto power, such obstruction will be complicated. Moreover, the question must be asked: how much less cooperative can congressional Republicans be? So whether or not Noah has come up with the ideal “Unilateralist Agenda,” he makes an essential point that others will soon echo.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on November 21, 2012 1:19 PM:

    With the House still solidly in Republican hands, I think President Obama has nothing to lose by following this agenda.

    If for no other reason, than to p*ss-off the @$$holes.

    And then use the fact that he had no other recourse, and tell people THAT'S why he needs a Democratic House.

    Not that it'll help much in '14 - since, according to Booman, there's not really a very good chance of taking back the House in the next election.

  • MichMan on November 21, 2012 1:21 PM:

    And if the Republicans don't like it, all they have to do is look at all the directives the Mittster was preparing to issue while he was measuring the drapes for the White House!

  • sjw on November 21, 2012 1:24 PM:

    Mr. Kilgore wrote: "an administration more aggressive about using its executive powers can actually improve its own leverage in the fiscal negotiations."

    Bingo. And wimpiness reaps its own wimpy reward, as we saw repeatedly this past four years.

    The "fiscal cliff" negotiations will tell us right quick whether Obama has grown a set or not.

  • BikeCrasher on November 21, 2012 3:20 PM:

    "Republican cooperation"

    Wait... What?

  • Doug on November 21, 2012 3:38 PM:

    I'll wait until we see what happens in regards to the filibuster in the Senate. Even if only a return to the "old" filibuster rules is all that's done, it would change the political dynamic in that chamber. And possibly elsewhere.
    I really think one reason so many Democratic voters don't show up during off-year elections is because they don't always know WHY something is/isn't done in DC. FSM knows, they get little help at present from the MSM and anything the makes it that much harder for Republicans to stay in the shadows, or the MSM to NOT do its job, is a "good thing".
    I like "good things"...

  • MelanieN on November 21, 2012 9:09 PM:

    Another thing he could and should do, unilaterally: call off his administration's unexpected and unjustified war on marijuana. Let the states experiment with medical marijuana, instead of charging in with both fists to shut down every dispensary in the state, as they recently did in California. Let the states who want to legalize-and-tax marijuana try it out and see how it works. Re-classify the drug to a more appropriate classification (right now it's banned for all uses, even research - classified the same as heroin) so scientists can actually study it. I'm not a user myself (too old) but even I can see how harmful our war on marijuana is - in crowding our prisons with people who use or sell a drug no more harmful than alcohol, and in feeding the profits and deadly gang-wars of the cartels which supply it.

  • charles on November 22, 2012 9:02 AM:

    didn't someone forget the power of the third branch of our government, as usual?
    Federal court actions can stop some, if not all, "Executive Orders", which have no Constitutional basis, absent declaration of national crisis, such as war.

  • doug on November 22, 2012 10:37 AM:

    And in a few years when the shoe is on the other foot with a possible Republican administration? Will all of you still support executive orders?

  • Doug on November 22, 2012 7:28 PM:

    For those determined not to understand; ie, the last two posters, an "Executive Order" are applicable only to organizations under the control of the Executive branch.
    ANY President can issue an Executive order in regards to, say, the Defense Department and that EO is legal and must be obeyed as long as Congress has passed no legislation prohibiting the action the EO is trying to make.
    Now, if you wish to talk about "signing statements", that's an entirely different matter...