Executive power

  • September 6, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Chris Edelson, assistant professor of government in American University's School of Public Affairs. He teaches classes on the Constitution and presidential power. Edelson is author of the forthcoming book, Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, which will be published by the University of Wisconsin Press in November 2013.

    It was an encouraging development for the rule of law when President Obama decided to ask Congress for legislative authorization to take military action in Syria. When Obama took office in 2009, it was reasonable to expect that his administration would move away from the Bush-Cheney-Yoo unitary executive model, which was essentially an argument for unchecked presidential power. However, while the Obama administration has certainly not embraced the outlandish unitary executive theory, it has, at times, found ways to skirt limits on presidential power.  The most prominent examples are probably the targeted killing, without judicial hearing, of U.S. citizens believed to be terrorist leaders and the administration’s decision to order military action in Libya in 2011. As I have argued elsewhere, in each case, executive branch lawyers in the Obama administration found ways to justify unilateral presidential action unchecked by the other branches of government. 

    Obama’s decision to involve Congress in the debate over the use of military force in Syria suggests a meaningful acknowledgment that presidential power is accountable to checks and balances.  As I have written for the Los Angeles Times, Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval was required by the Constitution since the United States has not been attacked by Syria. However, it was far from clear that Obama would turn to Congress. Advocates of  presidential power point out that past practice -- including Obama’s own action in Libya -- supports the conclusion that presidents can more broadly use military force when it is in the national interest, and not only when the U.S. is attacked. The fact that Obama did not act on his own is a positive sign and may help prevent future presidents from unilaterally using military force (picture a hypothetical President Ted Cruz deciding the national interest justified an attack against Canada).

    There is reason to contain one’s optimism, though, when it comes to setting new limits on the use of presidential power. Obama has stated that he reserves the right to use military force even if Congress declines to pass authorizing legislation. That is disconcerting, and simply does not make a great deal of sense. What is the point of Congress making a decision if it is merely an advisory opinion?  If Congress decides not to authorize the use of military force in Libya, Obama should respect that decision and should not act on his own. Unilateral action under these circumstances would be a dangerous decision for the Constitution, and could also be a bad political move.  Some Republican members of Congress have made clear that they are eager to find a reason, any reason, to impeach President Obama and remove him from office.  To date, there is no legitimate reason to support such an idea.  However, if Obama ordered military action in defiance of Congress, that could provide his political opponents with a legitimate argument for impeachment.

  • August 9, 2013
    Guest Post
     
    A United States intelligence employee sends classified government documents to the news media and ignites a national debate. Some hail him as a hero and whistleblower, others denounce him as a traitor. You might think we are talking about Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who disclosed  details of PRISM, the NSA’s massive surveillance program in  June. But we are also talking about Daniel Ellsberg, the Department of Defense consultant who provided  the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times 40 years ago to reveal the truth, which help end the Vietnam War.
  • July 30, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Michael German, senior policy counsel at the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office and a former FBI agent.

    My American Civil Liberties Union colleagues and I have been extremely busy since the Guardian and the Washington Post published leaked classified documents exposing the scope of the government’s secret interpretations of the Patriot Act and the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allow the FBI and NSA to spy on hundreds of millions of innocent Americans. We haven’t written much about the alleged leaker of this information, Edward Snowden, however, mainly because we took his advice to focus on what the NSA and FBI were doing, rather than on what he did or didn’t do. (See exceptions here and here).

    But I did want to clear up a question that seems to keep coming up: whether Snowden is a whistleblower. It is actually not a hard question to answer. The Whistleblower Protection Act protects “any disclosure” that a covered employee reasonably believes evidences “any violation of any law, rule, or regulation,” or “gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, and abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”

    In the two months since Snowden’s alleged disclosures, no fewer than five lawsuits have been filed challenging the legality of the surveillance programs he exposed. The author of the Patriot Act, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), called the scope of data collection revealed in one of the leaked Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders “incredibly troubling,” and “an overbroad interpretation of the Act” that “raise[s] questions about whether our constitutional rights are secure.”

  • July 26, 2013
    Guest Post
    by Leslie C. Griffin, William S. Boyd Professor of Law, UNLV Boyd School of Law 
     
    Liberty University v. Lew, the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision about the Affordable Care Act [ACA], should please no one. The opinion demonstrates the dangers of exempting religious organizations and individuals from the law. Take your pick. The court either exempted too many, or too few. Its middle ground unsatisfactorily addresses the First Amendment challenges to the Act.
     
    Individual plaintiffs and Liberty University opposed the individual and employer mandates of the ACA. The individual mandate requires individuals to obtain minimum essential health care coverage or pay a penalty in their taxes. The employer mandate requires employers to provide affordable minimal essential health care coverage to full-time employees or face a tax penalty.
     
    All plaintiffs are Christians morally opposed to abortion except to save the life of the mother. The most straightforward of their complaints alleged that their mandated insurance payments would wind up paying for abortions in violation of their constitutional and statutory rights. This is the simplest exemption argument in the case: plaintiffs think they should be exempt from the ACA because it burdens their religion.
     
    The court quickly dismissed that argument. Under the Free Exercise Clause, it ruled, the ACA is a neutral law of general applicability that applies to everyone without singling out religions for disfavor. Moreover, the court decided, plaintiffs’ religion was not burdened by the mandates. Although plaintiffs alleged that their money would be used for abortion, other provisions of the ACA required that a plan without abortion coverage would always be available as a choice for consumers. Without a substantial burden on religion, neither the Free Exercise Clause nor the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening religion without a compelling government interest) was violated.
     
  • July 16, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    As AEI’s Norman Ornstein predicted last week at a Common Cause event on the escalating use of the filibuster to scuttle consideration of legislation and nominations, senators crafted a deal to avoid a slight change to rules governing the filibuster.

    TPM’s Sahil Kapur reports that the deal means that nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department and the Export-Import Bank would get up-or-down votes in the Senate. Also Sharon Block and Richard Griffin, appointed to the NLRB via recess appointments and then re-nominated by President Obama would have to be replaced with new nominees, but with a written promise that the new nominees would be confirmed before the end of August. Following the deal the Senate voted to begin debate on the nomination of Richard Cordray to head the CFPB. Cordray’s (pictured) was recess-appointed to the position by President Obama because of Republican opposition to the agency created by financial overhaul legislation.

    Yesterday during an event at the Center for American Progress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that the only way for Senate Republicans to avoid a vote to slightly change the rules surrounding the filibuster would be to stop blocking consideration of the president’s executive branch nominees. Regarding today’s deal he said, “I think we see a way forward that will be good for everybody,” The New York Times reports.

    Common Cause, which last year lodged a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the filibuster, said the deal should be the start of further action on the filibuster.

    “A vote on these nominees should be just the starting point for rules changes that would break the Senate’s gridlock permanently,” said Common Cause Staff Counsel Stephen Spaulding. “Senate rules should guarantee a prompt review in committee and confirmation by a simple majority vote for ALL future presidential nominees.”

    In a recent guest post for ACSblog, former ethics attorney for President George W. Bush also urged action on the filibuster, saying the “situation is even worse under President Obama now that Senate Republicans who once said they despised the filibuster have shown they actually enjoy it.”

    Regarding judicial nominations, which were not on the table in the discussions that lead to today’s deal, there are more than 80 federal court vacancies, 32 of them considered judicial emergencies. The high vacancy rate has plagued the majority of Obama’s time in office. As noted here Republicans led by Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are threatening to scuttle or greatly stall President Obama’s nominations to fill the three vacant seats on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The D.C. Circuit hears myriad constitutional concerns, including many challenges to government regulations intended to enforce environmental laws. For more about vacancies on the federal bench, see JudicialNominations.org.