How Much Has the Obama Administration Defied the Law?

It’s a constant critique from the right that President Obama has ignored and flouted federal law more than any other administration in history. From not deporting DREAMers to the delaying the employer mandate* to not officially labeling Egypt’s coup a “coup” to today’s announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder that he’ll instruct prosecutors to leave out the amount of a drug found on low-level, non-violent criminal so that mandatory minimum laws are not invoked, the Administration has walked a tight line with regards to the law. Today’s announcement a major step for the Justice Department and has been greeted by applause by liberals. But is it legal?

As someone who is relatively new to political journalism, my biggest question is whether conservatives are right that the Obama Administration has ignored the law and used selective enforcement of different laws to advance its own agenda more than any other administration before it. That’s a pretty big charge – particularly after the Bush years – and if it’s right, it’s something we need to look at more closely. I’m going to look into this more, but I want to hear more experienced journalists chime in on this question. Those reporters who have been in DC for decades and have been around numerous administrations should be able to put this in context. The fact that I haven’t heard much from the MSM on this has led me to believe that the Obama Administration is, in fact, not ignoring the law more than any before it. But the last few weeks have seen the White House implement a couple of policies that should at least make us ask the question.

On the other hand, if conservatives are right and Obama has defied the law more than any before it, that’s a scary precedent. The combination of both President George W. Bush’s and President Obama’s disregard for federal law, plus a massive expansion of the surveillance state, is a scary path to be on. It’s bipartisan approval to ignore Congress. That’s not okay. The common saying is that the current Congress can’t bind future Congresses. After all, a future Congress can just pass a new law that overrides a past Congress. But the same cannot be said of the Presidency. The executive branch IS bound by the current Congress and only the current or a future Congress can change that. The President can’t simply decide to ignore past laws, but that seems to be exactly what President Obama has been doing.

I don’t have any answers here, but I want to lay out some questions:

  • Is this Administration’s selective adaptation of laws new?
  • If so, is it acceptable? Are we comfortable with this level of Executive Branch autonomy?
  • If not, is it still large enough to warrant increased coverage?
  • After the last two administrations, how do we stop the White House from falling down “the slippery slope?” What safeguards can we erect so that no White House takes its power too far?
  • If not, is it still large enough to warrant increased coverage?

The President’s refusal to label the coup in Egypt as a coup was particularly striking to me. Under any ordinary definition, what happened in Egypt was a coup. Except if the Administration had officially labeled it as one, it would have been required by law to cut off aid to Egypt. Of course, it had no desire to do that so it just refused to label it a coup and aid has continued. That’s not acceptable. I’m a proponent of foreign aid and understand its importance in the Middle East. But laws are laws. If Obama wanted aid to continue, he should have taken his case to Congress. Liberals may applaud Obama for finally acting proactively, but how would they react if a Republican President had ignored a law like that? They would’ve been furious and rightfully so. Presidents need to adhere to laws, both those passed during their administration and before it.

I know President Obama is fed up with the do-nothing Congress he’s stuck with and wants to find any means to sidestep it. unfortunately, the founders designed our Constitution to prevent exactly that so those workarounds are few and far between. Are we okay with the President stretching the definition of his authority when Congress is gridlocked? It’s yet another question we need to look at more closely, because over the past couple of years, the Administration has made a number of bold policy plays that are borderline, if not outright, illegal. It’s time we start asking ourselves how much of this is okay.

*Sarah Kliff had a good post on Wonkblog analyzing whether the Administration’s delay of the employer mandate was legal. It’s not entirely clear


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s