Were you stuck in the “Bates bubble” this past week? Did you happen to miss one of the most important speeches the president gives to the nation every year? Or, maybe you didn’t realize you missed the State of the Union address until just now.
What did you miss? Another speech eloquently delivered by President Obama that addressed income inequality, health care, immigration, national security and the war on terror, foreign policy and Iran, and education. In typical fashion, the President told the stories of the American people he had met and how their stories encouraged his agenda for the year. If you’ve been paying attention to politics in Washington and Obama’s frustration with Congress then you likely weren’t surprised by the content of the president’s speech and his plans for the year.
Already, it appears that 2014 will be the president’s so-called “Year of Action”—and this, I will tell you, is by far the most important aspect of the president’s State of the Union speech. Prior to explaining exactly what the “Year of Action” would entail, President Obama addressed the obvious—that passing legislation through Congress is a fruitless effort and that the nation is tired of partisan fighting.
“The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem… But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can,” Obama insisted.
It’s true: most of us would like to see some laws of weight be passed through Congress, and we would prefer not to have our government experience another shutdown.
But President Obama took that logic to the next step, stating: “I’m eager to work with all of you [in Congress]. But America does not stand still, and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Simply put, President Obama will use executive orders where he can and bypass Congress whenever possible.
President Obama then referred to one example of how he would use these executive orders: to raise the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors to $10.10.
“In the coming weeks, I will issue an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour—because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty,” President Obama stated.
This executive order appears to be rather reasonable. Unfortunately, $10.10 per hour won’t necessarily raise families out of poverty. And unfortunately, the invocation of the troops and my American pride does not prevent me from wondering about the wisdom of bypassing Congress and using an executive order in this situation. His relationship with Congress is like that of divorced parents; the use of an executive order only strains these tensions.
Many Americans are nervous regarding the power of the executive branch and the use of the executive order, believing in the supreme goodness of checks and balances. As one Democratic strategist commented, “People are suspicious of executive power, so you have to tread carefully.” It would be of no surprise then that President Obama only used the word “executive” twice and “executive order” once in his entire address.
While President Obama has used less executive orders than his last two predecessors—George W. Bush and Bill Clinton—the difference is in the type of executive orders President Obama has enacted. Obama’s push to force federal contractors to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 is seen as a significant executive order by many, although perhaps not as significant as his 2012 executive order that stopped the deportation of young illegal immigrants.
Believe me, I have nothing against raising the minimum wage to $10.10 for employees of federal contractors. In fact, I would love to see the minimum wage raised to $10.10 throughout the nation. My criticism of Obama’s decision to use this executive order, and to “take steps without legislation” is the precedent that it sets and the message it sends. While President Obama’s Democratic platform is similar to my own, I can see the problems that bypassing Congress will incur.
GOP politicians have already begun their attacks. “President Obama has this fantasy that he can just use his pen to write laws,” said Rep. Steve Scalise. “We don’t have a monarchy in this country—there’s an executive branch and the legislative branch, and the president has to work with Congress to get things done.”
While obviously this comment is an exaggeration of President Obama’s use of the executive orders, it is important to remember how much our nation is wary of executive action and see it as undemocratic. Congress is needed to pass important laws that have a large impact, however, the more significant executive orders President Obama passes, the more future presidents will take it as an example of how they can use executive orders to get through components of their platform. I don’t fear President Obama’s executive orders—not in the short term at least—but I fear the precedent they may set for the next president (especially a conservative one) that enters the oval office.
Not only does President Obama set a precedent, but by using executive orders Obama is essentially showing his weaknesses early on in his second term. President Obama’s executive orders highlight his inability to inspire Congress to pass bills into laws and underscore his lack of faith in Congress. The “Year of Action” could very well be one of inaction.