In Face of Veto Threat, President Backs Down From Executive Action

April 16th, 2015

The Times has an important overview of the President’s decision to back down from vetoing the bill of Iranian sanctions in the face of a veto-proof majority. The article ties together gridlock and executive power, and makes clear that when even the President’s own party thinks he has over-reached, he acquiesces.

In his assertions of executive power to advance his agenda in an era of gridlock, President Obama has been largely on offense. But his latest battle with Congress not only left him on defense, it actually broke the gridlock. Against him.

Mr. Obama’s abrupt decision to sign a compromise version of legislation on Iran that he had previously vowed to veto was a bruising retreat in his larger campaign to act without Congress’s getting in his way. In this case, partisanship gave way to rare consensus on Capitol Hill: Both sides agreed that he was wrong to cut them out.

The White House tried to make the best of the setback, arguing that the bipartisan bill was less objectionable than the initial draft. But the president’s concession in the face of potentially veto-proof majorities underscored that even his fellow Democrats believed he had overreached in trying to operate on his own. And it suggested that he may be approaching the outer boundaries of his authority with 21 months left in office.

I can’t imagine any other circumstances where the President’s own party would stand up against his domestic policies, for example with respect to immigration or Obamacare. Maybe, for now at least, foreign policy is still a safe zone for bipartisanship.

I would counter that the watered-down bill which the President signed has few meaningful restraints, and lets the President negotiate unfettered. As Yishai Schwartz noted on Lawfare, the President is “perfectly pleased” to sign this new deal.

The White House gained the high ground in any confrontation over the Iran deal the moment its lawyers discovered the sanctions regime could be dismantled by executive action. From then on, Congress and the potential deal’s critics have been playing defense. The delay period imposed by the revised Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act at least offers some check on the executive. But a check of some sort was likely inevitable—and this one is rather minimal. In the long-term, the appearance of this check may simply offer the president a bit more legitimacy as he unilaterally carries a deal across the finish line.

This bipartisan bill may have been a way to shield the President from a tougher bill. Now, he can show face. The Times explains:

Still, as a practical matter, this bill is no more likely to actually stop the deal with Iran than the original version. Under either version, Congress could pass a resolution rejecting the Iran agreement, but Mr. Obama could veto it, meaning he needs to hold onto no more than 34 senators or 146 House members to prevent an override.

As a side note, the President says he has “exhausted” his executive powers.

And during an appearance here on Wednesday to talk about issues like pay equity, Mr. Obama acknowledged that he had fewer options left for using his power without congressional support. “We’ve probably exhausted what I can do through executive actions,” he told a woman who asked if he could do more on his own to equalize pay between men and women.

Color me not persuaded. He made these exact comments after DACA, and said he could not expand his powers with respect to immigration. Then, we got DAPA.