In response to last week’s look at GOP candidate Donald Trump and Maine Gov. Paul LePage and their attitude toward legislative bodies, some readers argued that President Obama should have been included.
It was less a matter of saying Trump and LePage really did not seek to undermine Congress and the Legislature as much as saying, “the other guy is just as bad as our guy.”
Obama has been under steady attack for taking on authority that his critics maintain should really be left with Congress.
The President has responded by pointing out he has issued fewer vetoes and executive orders than any president in decades. He has been countered by critics who point out his extensive use of executive memorandums, whose tally has traditionally not been kept.
And like GOP President George W. Bush, though on a smaller scale, he has issued signing statements when approving new laws, indicating that he would not enforce parts of them he considered unconstitutional.
Whether Obama has disrespected congressional powers is not likely to yield a satisfactory statistical result. Either side can claim the data supports its position.
The issue is not statistics; it is substance.
When a president is faced by a Congress controlled by the opposition, he has often flexed his political muscle to the dismay of the other party.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Obama has been quite open about choosing to act because of congressional attempts to block his proposals. “If Congress refuses to act, I’ve said that I’ll continue to do everything in my power to act without them,” he announced.
Instead of putting pressure on Congress, that statement amounted to a declaration of war. Republicans could not accept his proposals without looking as if they were weak, so they left the field to him.
The alternative would have been for him to act assertively way without his defiant public statement. Then, perhaps, the GOP leadership might have chosen to deal with him at least on some issues to forestall unilateral action his part.
Obama did leave the door open for months to an immigration reform deal, favored by many leading congressional Republicans. But, with Obama having embarked on his go-it-alone policy, GOP leadership having become overly cautious about taking any action, and the approaching presidential election, the chances for cooperation died.
Instead, Obama pushed his executive power to the limit, perhaps even over it, in issuing an executive order that promised to prevent deportation of millions of immigrants. Little attention was paid to his record of deporting far more than any predecessor.
His move to tell government prosecutors to avoid pushing many possible deportations infuriated Republicans, adding to their arguments against his supposed usurpation of lawmaking power.
In the end, the dispute over whether Obama stepped over the line of executive authority and assumed powers belonging to Congress may never be settled. Courts have rejected the president’s use of recess appointments and may look at the immigration order, which has already been suspended. But it’s highly unlikely that a court will broadly define the limits of presidential power.
Obama and the GOP-controlled Congress have become engaged in a high stakes tug of war. In fact, that’s been characteristic of the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government from the beginning.
That struggle is quite different from the kind of confrontation between LePage and the Legislature. The governor’s plan to veto all bills is less a struggle for power than a sign of petulance. LePage has made it clear that he does not respect the Legislature or legislators.
LePage wants them to accept his reelection as a mandate to adopt his proposals. He has offered non-negotiable proposals, and there’s virtually no room for compromise.
With Trump, it’s simply a question of whether his obvious lack of respect for anybody who disagrees with him will be carried over into his relationship with Congress.
Obama and Congress are engaged in a new chapter of the classic contest to define the power of federal government institutions. Obama did initially seek cooperation, but as soon as the House of Representatives came under GOP control, it was the House that offered only take-it-or-leave-it options. He reacted.
Obama and Congress have serious conflicts, but they differ from a mere assertion of the right to blank-check political power, sought by LePage and likely also by Trump.