Executive power

  • May 16, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Like his predecessor President Obama has embraced an aggressive, mostly secret and, at times, constitutionally suspect approach to waging a never-ending war on terror.

    Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration has obsessively investigated leaks of information surrounding some of its counterterrorism efforts. The administration has launched at least six cases of alleged leaks, including one involving a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen that The Associated Press reported on last spring. As part of that investigation the Department of Justice secretly gathered and culled through phone records of AP reporters.

    Going on the information we have now it appears that the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech including press from government interference, was too easily shunted aside in an over-the-top investigation of a leak. The AP was given no chance to challenge a government search of its phone records and have a judge decide whether national security interests trumped freedom of speech in this instance. Yes, Attorney General Eric Holder claims the leak was one of the most egregious he has seen in a long, long time. But he doesn’t explain how it was so terribly egregious, nor do the facts as we know them now support his sweeping assertion.

    And today, during a press conference, President Obama hardly appeared fazed by the criticism of the DOJ’s tactics, decrying leaks of counterterrorism efforts. “Leaks related to national security can put people at risk, they can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk,” he said.

    But the May 7, 2012 reporting by the AP, had, according to its president, Gary Pruitt, been held until the White House assured the AP that “national security concerns" were no longer an issue. Pruitt added, “Indeed the White House was preparing to publicly announce that the bomb plot had been foiled.”  

    Earlier this week The New York Times Editorial Board hammered the administration for its “zeal” for going after persons accused of leaking national security information. In the AP matter, The Times Editorial Board said the administration had offered no “credible justification for secretly combing through the phone records of reporters and editors at The Associated Press in what looks like a fishing expedition for sources and an effort to frighten off whistle-blowers.”

    It’s rather lame to argue that just because Republicans howled loudly over the AP coverage of the foiled terrorist plot in Yemen that the DOJ’s obnoxious action of spying on the AP was somewhat mitigated. Moreover, it’s not like this administration has needed prodding to aggressively and obsessively go after alleged leakers.

  • May 15, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Peter M. Shane, Jacob E. Davis & Jacob E. Davis II Chair in Law, Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University

    Much of my writing on the constitutional separation of powers and checks and balances in operation is directed at the central importance of informal norms to effective government. Chief Justice Hughes famously wrote that “[b]ehind the words of the constitutional provisions are postulates which limit and control.” A subtle, but intimately related point is that our constitutional plan cannot work unless the competing institutions (and those in charge of them) agree on some common overarching values and on certain general understandings as to shared aims and the limits of unilateral power.

    If you think the text of the Constitution provides sufficient guidance by itself to keep the government operating, do a few thought experiments. Imagine that the Senate and House had adopted a custom early on that each would unanimously reapprove any legislation returned to Congress with a presidential veto. Nothing in the Constitution forbids such a practice. 

    Imagine that Congress had read the Constitution to allow the House to impeach presidents for acts of lesser magnitude than “high Crimes or Misdemeanors,” providing that conviction carried some punishment short of removal. Don’t believe the constitutional text permits this? Read it. 

    These things did not happen, I presume, because Congress recognized that such “customs” would eviscerate the contemplated co-equality of the executive and legislative branches. But not a word of constitutional text would have cast doubt on these practices.

    What we are witnessing today in depressing, even contemptible form is a GOP-led congressional subversion of two of the most elementary norms on which our government rests. The first is the proposition that the government should actually function.  Agencies Congress has created and to which it has delegated administrative responsibilities should discharge those responsibilities efficiently and effectively. The second is that the president is primarily responsible for achieving effective administration and, toward that end, he is entitled to significant, if not controlling deference by the Senate in his choice of individuals to head government agencies.

  • May 14, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Norman J. Ornstein, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann are authors of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. 

    Few members of the Senate have professed more concern about dysfunction in the nomination and confirmation process than Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Alexander is a wonk who cares about policy-making and problem solving. And, most importantly, it gets personal with Lamar -- he had his own unpleasant experience with the Senate's long-broken confirmation process when he came up as a nominee for Secretary of Education. Commendably, Lamar worked in a bipartisan fashion last year, with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and others to streamline the process by removing a number of lower level executive nominees from the requirement for Senate confirmation.

    What has happened to that Lamar Alexander? His persona seems to have been kidnapped and replaced by partisan warrior Lamar Alexander, participating in a series of abuses of the confirmation process that are both denying a president elected by a wide margin from selecting his own people to serve and attempting to block agencies from being able to function by filibustering or applying blanket holds to clearly qualified nominees -- what Tom Mann and I have called the new nullification.

    We have seen the latter both with the NLRB, ever since Obama became president in 2009, and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency charged with implementing Obamacare, since the Affordable Care Act was enacted. Faced with the prospect of a National Labor Relations Board actually functioning and making decisions that reflected the majority, Republicans in the Senate filibustered to block any nominees, no matter how qualified, to prevent the agency from having a quorum. Frustrated after a long period of such behavior, Obama used recess appointments to get the agency working-- and then had to deal with a sweeping appeals court decision, written by the highly partisan judge David Sentelle, the same judge who fired competent and fair-minded Whitewater Independent Counsel Robert Fiske and replaced him with Kenneth Starr, outlawing almost all recess appointments. The decision is under appeal, but Alexander is calling for the removal of Obama-named commissioners, and also calling for them to be blocked from re-nomination in the future, before the court case has been finally litigated. 

  • May 10, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Lisa Heinzerling, Professor of Law, Georgetown Law

    “The easiest way to save money,” President Obama declared in his 2012 State of the Union address, “is to waste less energy.”  In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama took another step and issued “a new goal for America”: “let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years.” The President also vowed that if Congress did not “act soon” to address climate change, he would “direct [his] Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

    Such welcome sentiments! So sensible and right and good! But here is a puzzling fact: at the same moment President Obama was uttering these wise and welcome remarks, his White House was blocking rules to promote the very energy efficiency he was extolling.  Far from urging the Cabinet to come up with executive actions on climate, his own White House was blocking his Cabinet from taking executive actions on climate. That situation persists to this day.

    To understand this rather startling state of affairs, we need some background about how the regulatory system works today. Congress has passed laws to increase in many different respects the energy efficiency of the “homes and businesses” the President talked about. Like most complicated contemporary laws, the laws on energy efficiency are implemented by an administrative agency, in this case the Department of Energy (DOE).  DOE writes rules that take the basic mandates given by Congress and give them shape; the agency specifies, for example, just how efficient new refrigerators and microwaves and lamps and buildings must be to meet Congress’s requirements.

    Once DOE writes a rule, however, it does not simply issue it. Instead, the rule must first pass through a White House office that oversees the federal rulemaking process – the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or OIRA. Under executive orders reaffirmed or issued by President Obama, no rule deemed significant by OIRA can be issued without OIRA’s approval. In the Obama administration, moreover, OIRA has increasingly become simply a portal into the political machinery of the larger White House. Rules go to OIRA and, from there, to the Domestic Policy Council, the White House economic offices, the White House Chief of Staff, even sometimes the President himself. (The former head of OIRA in this administration, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, documents (and lauds) this new reality in his recent book, “Simpler: The Future of Government.”)

    This is how the White House has come to block the very kinds of initiatives President Obama seemed to praise in his State of the Union addresses: energy efficiency rules have gone from DOE to OIRA and have never left.  As of this writing, nine rules from DOE on energy efficiency are stuck at OIRA. Five have been there since 2011, three since 2012. Six are not final rules; they are merely proposals.  Four of the rules are not even economically significant (that is, they do not impose costs of more than $100 million per year). But all of these rules are stuck, all the same.

  • May 9, 2013
    Guest Post

    by J. Chris Sanders, Counsel, Jobs With Justice

    President Obama’s nominees to the National Labor Relations Board are set to appear before a Senate hearing next week. What's at stake? To recap, the president nominated two labor-side members of the Board, who weren't confirmed due to the dysfunction holding up all kinds of administration nominees. Obama then appointed them in a recess in order to get a quorum of three Board members, who then rendered hundreds of decisions. The regal U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit recently ruled that the recess appointments were improper, and those hundreds of decisions were made without a quorum. So the decisions are in limbo, and the power to decide cases in the future at all is at risk. The administration has appealed the D.C. Circuit’s opinion to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, the president has nominated two management-side Republicans (a traditional, balanced approach) and re-nominated the chair to complete the five-person Board. They're headed to headhunter hearings before the Senate next week. 

    The dust-up has big consequences for working people, labor law, presidential appointment power, and the rule of law in the workplace.

    Pity the poor NLRB, enforcer of the venerable National Labor Relations Act. Over the last couple of years, this little federal agency has had its turn in the barrel with the "Obama-is-a-socialist" faction. Just one, prominent example: In 2011, a routine investigation found that Boeing's decision to build a new aircraft-production facility in South Carolina instead of at its Seattle base was partly to punish Seattle union workers for previous strikes. (The right to strike- to withhold one's labor to oppose mistreatment- is, at least on paper, federally protected from retaliation.) The evidence was strong, so the NLRB moved forward, and issued an unfair labor practice complaint.

     
    The mouth-breathers went ballistic. They blew it out of proportion into an attack on the New South and the marketplace. Boeing became a cause célèbre in Republican politics. A congressional committee subpoenaed the NLRB's General Counsel to a hearing in South Carolina. Hundreds of bills have been filed to destroy, de-fang, and de-fund the agency. Its budget is and was under attack, even before the sequester.