Executive power

  • 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.  
  • April 26, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Despite the rhetoric to move beyond a perpetual “war on drugs” the Obama administration remains mired in the tough-on-drugs mindset and its Justice Department seems befuddled by the states that have legalized small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

    The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report revealing that the administration’s goals set out in 2010 have largely not been met. The report noted that the Office of National Drug Control Policy and other federal agencies established “seven Strategy goals related to reducing illicit drug use and its consequences by 2015.” GAO continued, “As of March 2013,” its “analysis showed that of the five goals for which primary data on results were available, one shows progress and four show no progress.”

    But, as The Huffington Post’s Matt Sledge reports drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy has just released another drug control plan that builds on the policies the GAO has said are not working. More troubling, Sledge notes that the drug office’s budget “still devotes less than half of it funds to treatment and prevention. The GAO found that prevention and treatment programs are ‘fragmented’ across 15 federal agencies.”

    In an April 24 post on its web site, the Office of National Drug Control Policy bemoans “illicit drug use,” claiming “drug-induced overdose deaths now surpass homicides and car crashes as the leading cause of injury or death in America.” It also declares “we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.”

    The language from the administration’s drug control office is softer than rhetoric about the “war on drugs,” which the Nixon administration launched with the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) several decades ago. But the administration’s drug control office is not embracing drug legalization or even any changes to the CSA, such as removing marijuana from the list of drugs deemed as dangerous as say heroin.

    The muddled message from the Obama administration -- not helped by its Justice Department’s silence on how it will respond to Colorado and Washington, where officials are crafting measures to implement and regulate the recreational use of marijuana -- is preserving tough-on-drugs policies.

  • April 24, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    A Senate panel sought to shed some light on America’s drone war, which according to various reports by human rights groups has killed thousands of people, many civilians, in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and possible other sites abroad. The drone program launched during the administration of George W. Bush and escalated by the Obama administration has been shrouded in secrecy, and laden with controversy.

    But increased coverage of civilian casualties of the drone strikes have helped spur more interest in the use of Reaper and Predator drones to hunt and kill suspected terrorists. Also a leaked “white paper” apparently summarizing a lengthier document produced by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), caught widespread attention for its strained analysis to provide the president legal cover for approving the killing of U.S. citizens overseas who are suspected of having connections to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

    Before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee this week, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) described the hearing, as the first-ever, to “address the use of drones in targeted killing” and said that the DOJ had provided him with the full OLC memos on the targeted killings of American citizens overseas. He noted, however, that he wished the administration would provide all legal documentation on targeted killings involving non-Americans as well. (Click on image for archived webcast of hearing.)

    At the outset, Durbin noted the president’s powers as Commander in Chief are constrained by the U.S. Constitution’s other principles, such as the protections of liberty, including due process. “At times in over the course of history our rules of law have been abused; when this occurs it challenges America’s moral authority and standing in the world.” Durbin also noted that civilian casualties related to the drone strikes can undermine the administration’s efforts to conduct an ongoing war against terrorism.

    Human rights groups and at least one of the committee’s witnesses suggest that the nation’s moral authority and standing have already been compromised by the drone war.

    Peter Bergen, with the New America Foundation, for example cited the significant escalation of the drone trikes and the public perception of those military actions in the places like Pakistan. “At this point, the number of estimated drone strikes from the Obama administration’s drone strikes in Pakistan – somewhere between 1,614 and 2,765 – is more than four times what it was during the Bush administration,” Bergen said in his written testimony before the committee.

    Addressing public perception of the drone war, Bergen later noted polling last year in 21 countries “found widespread global opposition to the CIA drone program. Muslim countries such as Egypt (89 percent) and Jordan (85 percent) expressed high levels of disapproval, while non-Muslim countries that are close American allies also registered significant displeasure with the program – Germany and France respectively polled at 59 and 63 percent disapproval.”

    Bergen, and another witness, Georgetown law school professor Rosa Brooks, however, highlighted that the number of civilians killed by drone strikes are hard to determine because of transparency. Brooks cited work by the New American Foundation, claiming that civilian casualties are “slightly lower” than those reported by human rights organizations.

  • April 16, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    President Obama promised but failed to shutter the Guantánamo Bay military prison and has refused to launch an investigation into the use of torture at the prison and other unknown or “black sites.” But groups like Human Rights Watch and many others, including inmates at the prison, strive to highlight the injustices and atrocities of the prison, rendition and military commissions.

    It’s not an easy endeavor in a nation where polls suggest that many people are not terribly concerned about the rights of people who the American government has labeled terrorist suspects. In a piece for The New York Times op-ed page that garnered notice, Samir Najl al Hasan Moqbel, a prisoner at Guantánamo for more than 10 years, explained his reasons for going on a hunger strike. He’s never been charged with a crime, he has been left to languish in a dark hole, where prison officials brutally force-feed him. “The situation is desperate now,” he writes. “All of the detainees are suffering deeply. At least 40 people are on a hunger strike. People are fainting with exhaustion every day. I have vomited blood.”

    It has been widely documented that military detainees have been tortured at Guantánamo and other unknown or “black” sites overseas, with the knowledge of top administration officials in the administration of George W. Bush. In 2011, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting evidence that top Bush administration officials, including the president, approved of torture. (Office of Legal Counsel memoranda were eventually made public reveling the lengths attorneys took to justify torture.) The Constitution Project, as reported by The New York Times’ Scott Shane, has released an exhaustive report, more like a book, that adds “considerable detail” to the treatment of military detainees. See the group’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment.

    Another report from Seton Hall School of Law provides more evidence that the Guantánamo military tribunals are a sham.

    In “Spying on Attorneys at Gitmo,” the Seton Hall School of Law’s Center for Policy & Research, details a system of “surveillance and recording” devices in “designated attorney-client meeting rooms at the military prison.”

    Law Professor Mark Denbeaux, director of the law school’s policy and research center, said government surveillance of conversations between attorneys and military detainees greatly undermines the already wobbly legitimacy of the military commissions.