Obama on Gridlock and the Courts

October 21st, 2014

In Jeff Toobin’s interview with President Obama, we gained further insight into how the President views the relationship between gridlock and executive power.

Obama has stopped pretending that he has much respect for Congress. He had minimal tolerance for legislative horse-trading even when he was a legislator. Now, after six years of implacable Republican opposition to everything he has proposed, he sounds fed up.

“Because Congress is not working the way it’s supposed to, there’s both pressure on administrative agencies and pressure on the courts to sort through, interpret, and validate or not validate decisions that in a better-functioning democracy would be clearer and less ambiguous,” Obama said.

This explanation is keeping with the President’s view that gridlock provides a justification, or “safety valve” to use the Solicitor General’s explanation during Noel Canning, to engage in more robust executive power. See my article Gridlock and Executive Power for more details.

Yet, the President’s theory departs from reality, because he firmly believes that Congress voting “no” on something is not taking action.

He pointed out that the failure of Congress to pass legislation on climate change and immigration left his Administration with little guidance on how to proceed on those issues. When there is gridlock in Congress, “the executive branch has to make a whole series of decisions,” Obama said. “That, in turn, puts more burden on the Court to interpret whether the executive actions are within the authority of the President and whether they’re interpreting statutes properly. All of which I think further politicizes the courts.”

Congress voted no on the President’s immigration policy (albeit by one vote in the Senate). That is not a failure to provide guidance. They provided guidance. They said no. At which point the President can try something else. Instead, he worked around Congress with DACA, and whatever we will get after the election.

As to his argument that his executive actions politicizes the Courts, I think he needs to take stock of the fact that virtually every SCOTUS decision against him in this realm has been a 9-0 reversal, most recently Noel Canning. This is one of the rare areas where the President has united people who usually disagree–the 9 Justices of the Court!