The President's Unilateral Agenda

January 29, 2014 - 5:22 PM

Listening to the president's State of the Union speech, I counted ten (and perhaps a few more) specific examples where the president announced he would act unilaterally if Congress would not advance some part of the agenda he wants.  "America does not stand still, and neither will I," he stated. "So wherever and whenever I can take steps without Congress to expand opportunity, that's what I'm going to do."

On the environment, the president announced that he and his EPA are unilaterally going to set new standards for carbon emissions.  They are unilaterally going to expand federal fuel economy standards to cover trucks as well as cars.

He is unilaterally going to expand federal control over our "pristine lands" to protect them for future generations.  And, trading in his hat has regulator-in-chief for scientist-in-chief, the president proclaimed that the debate over climate change is over.  "Climate change is a fact."  (Heraclitus would be proud!).

On the economy, the president announced that he is tasking Vice President Joe Biden to take over a review of all jobs training programs, inviting Congress to send money if it wants to help.  He is unilaterally going to expand pre-kindergarten programs until Congress decides what it wants to do on the subject.

He is unilaterally going to change the terms of student loan contracts, capping the payment schedule at ten percent of the student's post-graduation income.  He urged Congress to pass water and transportation bills by summer, but announced that he will act on his own as well, streamline the permitting process for key projects.

He and his Treasury Secretary are going to start a new program to allow people to save more for retirement, called My-IRAs.  And in the coming weeks, the president says he is going to issue an executive order requiring federal contractors - that is, private businesses who sell goods or services to the federal government -- to pay at least $10.10 per hour to every single one of their employees, a forty percent increase in the minimum wage.

Truth be told, the president's speech was progressivism on show.  Government is good, so more government must be better.

And the Constitution's checks on government power-such as that pesky constitutional requirement that laws be made by Congress-are, in the progressives' view, just so many impediments to good government that they should be dispensed with.  In his speech, this president, time and time and time again, announced his willingness to end-run Congress and the Constitution in order to advance his agenda.

Of course, Congress has delegated so many of its lawmaking powers to unelected administrative agencies in the past century that the president's assertions of unilateral executive power probably find support from one bizarre ambiguous statute or another, particularly as those statutes have been manipulated and interpreted by clever government lawyers at agencies seeking to expand their own powers.  But, the president is taking delegation to dizzying new heights, and it is long past time for the American people to demand that basic policy decisions affecting our nation be made by our elected representatives in Congress, not by unelected bureaucrats in administrative agencies, doing the bidding of a president with an aggressively pro-government agenda.

This is particularly urgent when that agenda is really more beatific vision than real world.  The president seems to think, for example, that he can just magically raise the minimum wage and thereby eliminate poverty among the working poor, overlooking decades of evidence that doing so dramatically increases unemployment, particularly among disadvantaged youth.

He seems to think that we can force automakers to produce lighter, more fuel-efficient cars without any trade-off in safety, just by passing new regulations.  He seems to think that he and his Treasury secretary, apparently with just the wave of a magic wand, can create retirement savings accounts for everyone that will, as he claimed, "guarantee a decent return with no risk."  Coming from a government that caused a mega-billion savings and loan collapse, that coerced banks to give mortgages to people whom they knew had no capacity to pay them and thereby caused a multi-trillion dollar collapse in our financial markets, that can't seem to run the trains or the post office or anything else on budget, we should all rest assured that our new My-IRAs will generate a decent return without any risk.

Ronald Reagan once famously described the phrase, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help," as the nine most terrifying words in the English language.  President Obama has outdone him with thirteen even more terrifying.  "I'm the president, and I actually believe I can do anything I want."  The only question that remains - will the rest of us sit by and let him.

Dr. Eastman is the Henry Salvatori Professor of Law & Community Service at Chapman University's Fowler School of Law, and the Director of the Claremont Institute's Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence.