Politics as usual: The President vs. Congress

Recently, I read an article in the Washington Post which caught my attention. Essentially, it says that President Obama is planning to issue a set of executive orders on items that he feels need to be addressed, but that Congress is dragging its feet on. For those of you who don’t know, an executive order is basically an order issued by the president to make people do things. It generally applies to things the president has direct control over namely the agencies, such as the departments of state, defense, or treasury, which are part of the executive branch of government. Since the president is in charge of a lot of agencies, over time these executive orders have become more and more sweeping. Furthermore, as politics in Washington have become more polarized, presidents have taken to using executive orders more and more as opposed to waiting on Congress to pass a law. They are appealing to presidents since they have the full force of law and the president can simply make an order and have it be executed.

Although it is likely Republicans will disagree, I think it is fair to say that the President took actions to work with Congress in his first term. However, the President was faced with stiff opposition to almost all of his initiatives in his first four years. Conventionally, this type of disagreement has been framed as an argument between Republicans and Democrats. However, it is also an argument between the office of the President and the Congress as two competing branches of government. This is because our government is set up on the foundation of checks and balances. The concept of checks and balances works under the premise that politicians and political offices are inherently greedy for power. As a result the founders of our form of government set up a system whereby the branches of government would be locked in a perpetual fight for control of the government. In other words the Legislative (Congress), Judicial (Supreme Court), and Executive (President) branches of government are constantly competing for ultimate control of the government and its agenda. The three branches have different powers and can use these powers to block the other branches from seizing power. In general, the Supreme Court really only has the power of the referee (they can theoretically say who is right in a dispute between Congress and the President) and the real battle of power is between the President and Congress. Congress makes laws and the President chooses whether or not to enforce them.

As a result it is very interesting when Presidents begin to use their executive power to issue orders which carry the force of law. In this context, we can see that if the President is issuing executive orders to advance his agenda, he is also commenting that the Congress is not doing its job. More to the point, I believe President Obama is commenting that Congress is impeding the progress of the nation, because Republicans and Democrats are unable to agree on any legislation that would assist the nation. The Congress has not passed legislation to balance the budget and that has led the nation to the edge of fiscal disaster. In fact, right now the Congress can’t even agree on whether it is appropriate to pay bills it has already incurred. The bedrock of lawmaking is compromise. Both political parties must be willing to state and aggressively defend their positions, but both political parties must also be willing to come to the negotiating table and compromise to create law. This is the good faith agreement that Congress is based on. If either of the parties involved cannot do this, then Congress becomes stagnant and ultimately cedes its power when it comes to its position against the Executive. This stagnation might be acceptable if the nation was in a better position. But when the nation is recovering from a recession and needs vigorous action from Congress to secure its future, this type of inaction is inexcusable.

Recently, critics have taken notice of the expected Executive orders from the president and have tried to portray him as someone who is trying to become a dictator. I don’t think the President is has dictatorial aspirations. But I think the critics should note that the Congress has stumbled in its duty to make effective law and is failing its role as a good faith sparring partner with the President. These political power games are part of the foundation of our democracy. If the government falls into tyranny or a dictatorship, I feel the blame should be pointed squarely at the Congress and our two political parties for failing to meet at the negotiating table and pass laws for the benefit of the nation.