Editorial: Obama’s declaration of independence
If Congress won’t help him, President Obama declared this week, he’ll try to get the economy moving on his own. By executive order he intends to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors and help workers save for retirement and train for good jobs. “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.
It was a declaration of independence simultaneously encouraging and bleak. Encouraging that the president does not intend to sit idly by while Congress is, again, determined to do nothing. Bleak that the only way to accomplish anything in Washington these days is to simply ignore one of the three branches of government. And bleak again that the president’s goals, given the intractability of Congress, are necessarily small, even in his so-called “year of action.”
Obama’s opponents in Congress and are already raising concerns about the use of executive orders. The Republican attorney general of Oklahoma called it a “direct threat to our liberty.” But such unilateral action isn’t new, isn’t confined to one party or the other and, given the circumstances, isn’t hard to understand.
What have presidents accomplished via executive order? Thomas Jefferson negotiated the purchase of the Louisiana Territory. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Harry Truman desegregated the military. Bill Clinton expanded the nation’s inventory of public lands. (On the somewhat less sweeping end of the spectrum, Obama last summer prohibited certain imports of Burmese jadeite and rubies – take note.)
More well-known, perhaps, are the sort of executive orders that ping-pong back and forth between administrations of different parties. Consider, for instance, the “global gag rule” first issued by Ronald Reagan by executive order in 1984. The measure prevented the United States from funding family-planning services overseas at clinics that also offered abortion-related services, including counseling. The measure was reversed by Clinton, renewed by George W. Bush and repealed by Obama. Not exactly the consistency our allies elsewhere in the world might hope for.
Indeed, executive orders sometimes feel flimsier than actual legislation, but even these are often difficult to reverse for reasons of politics. George W. Bush, for instance, wanted to reverse a Clinton-era order limiting the acceptable amount of arsenic in water but was forced to leave it be.
Obama’s unilateral effort on the minimum wage, the most dramatic of those outlined Tuesday night, will necessarily affect a small group of people: workers for companies that win new or renewed contracts with the federal government. But the results might be slightly more far-reaching. By setting an example, albeit limited, the president may encourage states, including New Hampshire, to raise their own minimum wage laws without waiting for Congress to act. He might also convince some private employers to do better by their workers without the goad of any law at all.
Either way, the president’s go-it-alone plan was no doubt the opening salvo of the 2014 election campaign. As voters watch the goings-on in Washington over the next year, it will be important to pay attention not just to what’s getting done but to who’s making it happen.