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July 12, 2014 9:57 AM If Boehner Sues Obama, John Roberts Wins

By Jonathan Bernstein

The story on House Speaker John Boehner’s lawsuit against President Barack Obama is pretty simple: regardless of whether the administration overstepped, what’s at stake is whether the courts are being empowered at the expense of the elected branches of government.

For starters, there’s zero evidence that Obama has been unusual in his use of executive powers. If he’s overdone it, then all the recent presidents have done so, too. The idea that he’s some sort of tyrant who acts differently than other modern presidents is nonsense.

In fact, It’s perfectly normal for presidents and executive branch departments and agencies to make broad interpretations of law that look a lot like legislating. It’s how the system works, and pretty much how it always worked. Thus Richard Neustadt’s famous claim that the system isn’t “separation of powers,” but separated institutions sharing powers.

Nonetheless, there are rules constraining how laws may be interpreted, and it is possible that in specific instances, the administration may have acted beyond what the law allows.

Indeed, experts have made the case that this kind of overreach occurred with the delayed implementation of the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act (which, apparently, is going to be central to the House Republicans’ lawsuit), though other experts disagree.

In any case, it would be unprecedented, and in fact would constitute a significant change to the constitutional system, if the courts allowed Congress to sue the president over the ACA delay.

The technical issue is “standing.” For the courts to consider a lawsuit, the person or group bringing the suit has to show they were harmed in some direct way. So, for example, in the recent recess appointment case, Noel Canning Corp. was able to show that it had directly been harmed by an action taken by members of the National Labor Relations Board who had been recess-appointed. Generally, the courts have ruled (Vox has a good explainer on this) that Congress isn’t eligible to sue the president just because it doesn’t like what he’s done.

What Boehner is claiming now is that Congress, or the House of Representatives in this case, should be able to sue the president for not following the law if no one else would be able to do so.

If that succeeds, however, the big winner in the long run wouldn’t be Congress. It would be the courts.

By the logic of Boehner’s own action (despite what he says), this isn’t about a tyrannical president refusing to obey the law. If House Republicans believed that Obama was an out-of-control dictator, then they couldn’t also believe that a court ruling would be sufficient to constrain him.

What’s actually happening is that the House doesn’t interpret the law in the same way as the president, and the question is how to resolve the variance. Normally, each branch has an opportunity to interpret the law (those separated institutions sharing powers again), but doctrines such as standing limit the courts’ ability to intervene.

If, however, they can intervene whenever a house of Congress is unhappy, then the courts get a a much more active role in determining what the laws say. And why just a house of Congress? What if the president sued Congress, for example, if it failed in its obligation to produce appropriations bills on time? Instead of a government shutdown, would we get an injunction and then a judicial act of appropriations, with someone appointed by Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan making 302(b) allocations by judicial fiat? Or perhaps we’d wind up with individual senators jurisdiction shopping, looking for a friendly judge to overturn some fight they lost in committee or on the Senate floor. Those kinds of setbacks are common for senators and executive branch departments; the only thing that prevents the losers, or whole chambers that lost fights in conference, from directly appealing to the courts is that the courts have a doctrine against intervening.

So what can Congress do? If the problem were simply a president who failed to follow the law, then the only real choices would be either to live with it, or impeachment and conviction. But if the problem is merely that the president interprets a law in a way that Congress doesn’t like, then the obvious remedy, as presidency scholar Andrew Rudalevige said recently, is “for Congress to change the law to remove presidential discretion” (I argue the same here).

So put aside the question of whether the administration improperly interpreted the law (it might have). Put aside, too, the silliness of House Republicans attempting to force the president to impose a policy, the employer mandate, which no Republican actually wants to enforce. And put aside the reality that by the time this lawsuit is decided it may well be moot, at least if the mandate takes effect as currently planned. This is about enhancing judicial power at the expense of the elected branches, and it’s a very bad idea.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

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