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THE HYSTERIA OVER OBAMA EXECUTIVE ORDERS

Posted by Peter M. Shane on January 17, 2013

Not being a psychiatrist, I don’t really understand why the President’s fairly modest efforts at gun policy reform seem to have utterly deranged some of his political opponents.  But talk of impeachment in connection with his gun-related “executive orders” is, to put it mildly, ridiculous.

To put matters in context, it helps to understand “executive orders.”  These are presidential directives – sometimes formally called “executive orders,” sometimes not – that are issued to help manage the federal government.  There is no authoritative definition of “executive orders” that distinguishes them from “presidential memorandums,” “presidential proclamations,” or – as in the case of the George W. Bush first directive on military commissions – just “orders.”  The Federal Register Act lumps them together with “presidential proclamations” as documents that, with some exceptions, must be made public.

Although some news outlets reported that President Obama signed 23 executive orders relating to gun violence in America, he actually signed only three.  Although they were called, “Presidential Memorandums,” two, at least, were indistinguishable from run-of-the-mill executive orders in that they applied to the heads of all executive departments and agencies.  The other, addressed to a single agency, takes a form that would typically be called a “memorandum.”

Executive orders, like any other form of presidential initiative, must be rooted in some form of legal authority.  Some are issued in the President’s constitutional chief executive capacity, and set forth managerial requirements for specified federal operations.  Some are issued pursuant to explicit authority delegated to the President by statute, or are issued as a way of complying with obligations Congress has imposed on the President or the executive branch more generally.

What executive orders cannot do is impose obligations or restrictions on the public, unless Congress, through legislation, has expressly or implicitly conferred authority on the President to do so.  It is worth noting that none of President Obama’s executive orders on gun violence do any such things.

One of these memorandums requires federal agencies to step up their efforts to comply with the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007.  As the memorandum explains, “Among its requirements, the NIAA mandated that executive departments and agencies (agencies) provide relevant information, including criminal history records, certain adjudications related to the mental health of a person, and other information, to databases accessible by the NICS.”  The memorandum puts the Justice Department in charge of coordinating government-wide compliance with the Act, and requires agencies to keep the President and the Justice Department informed of their progress.

Not only is this a constitutionally unremarkable order, but it perfectly comports with the President’s constitutional obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.

A second memorandum directs the Departments of State, the Treasury, Defense, Justice, the Interior, Agriculture, Energy, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security, and potentially other agencies and offices that “regularly recover firearms” in the course of their investigative activities to ensure that such firearms are “traced through ATF at the earliest time practicable.”

The memorandum asserts, “Over the years, firearms tracing has significantly assisted law enforcement in solving violent crimes and generating thousands of leads that may otherwise not have been available. . . .If Federal law enforcement agencies do not conscientiously trace every firearm taken into custody, they may not only be depriving themselves of critical information in specific cases, but may also be depriving all Federal, State, and local agencies of the value of complete information for aggregate analyses.”

This memorandum is thus an unremarkable presidential exercise in priority-setting.  Federal agencies have the authority to trace the firearms they take into custody.  The President is saying, “Do it quickly.”

The third memorandum directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services, through the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other scientific agencies within her department “to conduct or sponsor research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it.”  This also is a pure exercise in agenda-setting.  HHS and the CDC already have legal authority to conduct or sponsor research on public health problems.  The President is telling them to put “gun violence” on the list of things they research.

In short, none of these memorandums requires the public to do anything, expands the powers of the federal executive, or evokes even remotely the ghost of George III.  So, please, let’s get a grip – preferably not pearl-handled.

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The Two-Mandate Myth: An Ohio View

Posted by Peter M. Shane on November 8, 2012

Within moments of President Obama’s apparent victory in both popular and electoral votes, Speaker Boehner was claiming that Republicans enjoy their own mandate from the 2012 elections – Republicans kept control of the House. I’m searching in vain for a polite word for this argument.

With unemployment still near 8 per cent and a majority of voters thinking the country is on the wrong track, the Democrats nonetheless not only retained the White House, but increased their majority in the Senate and racked up a string of victories, coast-to-coast, for unmistakably progressive causes and candidates. They won these victories because, in a head to head contest with opposing views, the Democratic or, more generally, the progressive, view proved more appealing.

The reason why the Republicans still have the House is simple: gerrymandering. According to NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, Republicans used their complete control of 17 state governments after the 2010 elections to pack Democrats into fewer “safe” Democratic districts and create 11 additional “likely” seats for Republicans – that is, seats where the GOP could be expected to routinely receive 55-60% of the vote in a two-party contest.

Not surprisingly, the Rothenberg Report, using its own definitions and polling data, found the GOP with 205 safe seats on the eve of the election; they needed to prevail in only 13 competitive races to maintain control of the House.

Consider the case of Ohio. President Obama won by two points. Sherrod Brown beat  Josh Mandel by a little over 5. With 16 congressional seats up for grabs, it would stand to reason, would it not, that the districts would split perhaps evenly?

Instead, Ohio’s House delegation will go 75% to the Republicans, with only four seats going to Democrats. All four Democrats won in packed Democratic districts. Indeed, the 11th District was so uncompetitive for Republicans, and the 8th District – John Boehner’s – so hopeless for Democrats, that those two representatives ran unopposed. Only 3 of the 16 elected representatives won by under 55 per cent of the vote. Counting the two unopposed incumbents, 8 won by over 60 per cent. Mapmaking is a beautiful thing.

Another way to look at this is to compare the total votes cast for each party’s congressional candidates. Of the 4,849,628 Ohioans who voted for a Democratic or Republican candidate for Congress in 2012, 2,545,368, or 52.5 percent, voted for a Republican and 2,304,260, or 47.5 percent voted for a Democrat. Apply these percentages to a 16-seat delegation and you get an 8-8 split if the delegation is apportioned according to the popular vote.

In gerrymandering the state, Ohio’s Republican legislature and governor not only gave the party an unearned gift of four congressional seats, but probably made it harder to recruit the strongest Democratic candidates for all contested elections. Running as a candidate in a district where voting registration favors the other party by a 20-point margin means you will not only lose, but you are unlikely to get the kind of funding or volunteer support necessary to stave off total embarrassment.

So let’s not be confused. November 6, 2012 provided a conspicuous electoral mandate for a progressive agenda in the United States. The Republicans could stack the deck for House elections (although they still lost seats, mind you). But when the dealer working a stacked deck gets a full house — or, in this case, a full House — it’s not a mandate for the dealer. It’s just the fruit of (in this case, lawful) cheating.

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Why contempt case against Holder may be doomed

Posted by Peter M. Shane on June 21, 2012

(CNN) — For veteran Congress watchers, President Barack Obama’s formal claim of executive privilege regarding certain Justice Department documents related to Operation Fast and Furious will generate a sense of déjà vu.

Disputes over legislative access to executive documents occur in almost every presidential administration. Their resolution inevitably entails a set of legal and political considerations that change from episode to episode.

Unfortunately for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, its legal position is uncertain at best, and almost all political considerations would seem to favor the White House.

Whether or not the full House votes Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, the likeliest resolution will be an informal settlement in which the Justice Department expands slightly on its current offer of disclosure, the committee narrows the range of documents it is demanding, or both compromise in a mutual, face-saving gesture. . . .

For the rest of my analysis, see http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/21/opinion/shane-holder-contempt/index.html

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OLC’s Skillful Defense of President Obama’s Recess Appointments and Its Possible Aftershocks

Posted by Peter M. Shane on January 13, 2012

The Justice Department’s release of on Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion regarding President Obama’s recess appointments power is a welcome display of public accountability. However one analyzes the bottom line, the opinion is a model of the genre. It is thorough in its analysis, candid about points that are novel or untested, and serious about engaging what it acknowledges to be substantial counterarguments. This is evidence of an OLC that is doing its job.

For separation of powers aficionados, what ought to most interesting is the OLC opinion’s primary line of attack. I had earlier defended the President’s right to make recess appointments even during a three-day recess – an argument that, in a footnote, the OLC opinion holds in reserve. OLC’s main conclusion, however, is that the recent pro forma sessions were of no constitutional significance in interrupting what was effectively a 20-day recess. OLC thus followed earlier Attorney General Opinions that had judged the concept of “recess” functionally, by whether “in a practical sense the Senate is in session so that its advice and consent can be obtained.”

The OLC analysis is arguably the more institutionally modest position because it is better grounded in historical precedent. Its functional approach also resonates with Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit opinions dealing with a structurally similar question, namely, when does Congress “by their adjournment” prevent the President from returning a veto message, thus triggering the President’s power of “pocket veto” – i.e., the power to prevent an enacted measure from becoming law without an actual veto if, on the tenth day following the measure’s presentation to the President, Congress is not in session to receive the President’s message. In the 1938 case of Wright v. United States, the Supreme Court held that, even when the Senate was concededly in a three-day recess, it had not prevented the President from vetoing enacted bills because the Secretary of the Senate remained available to receive the veto message. The OLC opinion, like Wright and, even more conspicuously, Wright ‘s D.C. Circuit progeny, seeks a constitutional reading that most pragmatically facilitates the system of checks and balances by respecting the core powers of each political branch.

(Interestingly, Professor Laurence Tribe had earlier offered yet a different analysis — that the Constitution confers “an irreducible minimum of presidential authority to appoint officials when the appointments are essential to execute duly enacted statutes,” and that pro forma Senate sessions during what would otherwise appear to be a substantial recess could not defeat the President’s power when such sessions “manifestly” served no purpose other than to serve as a “transparently obstructionist tactic.”)

As much as I admire the restraint and thoughtfulness of the OLC opinion, however, I have only a limited hope that it will put a stop to interbranch game-playing. Perhaps the toughest point for OLC to counter was that, during two pro forma sessions – one last summer and one this winter – the Senate actually did pass legislation by unanimous consent, thus seeming to be “in business.” OLC’s counter to this was rather technical, namely, that the scheduling orders during which the pro forma sessions were held explicitly provided that there was to be “no business conducted.” “In our judgment,” the opinion states, “the President may properly rely on the public pronouncements of the Senate that it will not conduct business (including action on nominations), in determining whether the Senate remains in recess, regardless of whether the Senate has disregarded its own orders on prior occasions.”

That’s fair enough, but let’s imagine a few scenarios. What if, for example, the Republicans take the Senate in 2012, but President Obama is reelected? It seems quite likely that the pro forma ritual will continue, but with the Senate modifying its scheduling orders to make the possibility of doing business seem more plausible. Perhaps the pro forma sessions will occur daily, rather than every three days.

Or, imagine, as is less likely, that the Democrats retain the Senate but President Obama loses the White House. The Democrats, eager to prevent controversial nominees from getting recess appointments, could well try to prevent them the old-fashioned way – by actually scheduling floor action and voting them down. Will we then see Republicans using the filibuster to prevent such votes, not in the hope that the Senate will ever approve the nominees in question, but to keep the nominations alive and the vacancies open, so President Obama’s Republican successor may appoint them during a recess?

In our analyses of President Obama’s recent appointments, both Professor Tribe and I stressed that the appointments were limited to vacancies that, if they persisted, would prevent the agencies involved from actually executing the laws they were charged with enforcing. Of course, there is no guarantee that any successor to President Obama (or even President Obama himself on another occasion) will observe such restraint.

And, on top of all of this, the President seems to have his own textually explicit nuclear option. He is authorized by Article II to adjourn Congress unilaterally “to such time as he shall think proper.” If courts interpret the Recess Appointments Clause to require adjournments of, say, ten days or more in order to be triggered, there is no obvious bar in the text to the President adjourning Congress for ten days to accomplish precisely that end.

A British Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, famously observed: “Every political constitution in which different bodies share the supreme power is only enabled to exist by the forbearance of those among whom this power is distributed.” Under our Constitution, of course, it is “the People” who hold the supreme power. But we have effectively delegated the exercise of government power to a set of partly autonomous, partly interdependent institutions to which we have allocated both authorities and dependencies in the hope of effective governance. Yet, “forbearance of those among whom . . . power is distributed” is not much in evidence these days. As much as I applaud the President’s recent actions and the skillful defense OLC has offered, I thus find it difficult not to worry about the aftershocks.

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Recess Appointments and President Obama’s Surprising Restraint

Posted by Peter M. Shane on January 6, 2012

For all the brouhaha surrounding President Obama’s recess appointments this week of three new members for the National Labor Relations Board and of Richard Cordray to serve as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, what is most surprising – and most welcome from a constitutional perspective – is the President’s restraint in his use of the recess appointment power. What’s scary is the precedent it may set for other Administrations’ less judicious use of that power.

Article II of the Constitution authorizes the President “to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.” The Constitution does not require that the recess be of any particular length or for any particular reason. The Senate was out on a three-day hiatus when President Obama made his appointments. His act squares neatly with the constitutional text.

Some observers may be confused by the Article I provision stating: “Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days . . . .” Because the House (at the behest of Republican Senators) is currently not allowing the Senate to adjourn for more than three days, the Senate has been going through a repeated ritual of convening in “pro forma” session every third day, but without any capacity to do legislative business. (Harry Reid invented this technique in 2007 to forestall recess appointments by George W. Bush.) But there is no constitutional requirement that a Senate recess triggering the President’s appointments power be an adjournment to which the House of Representatives has consented.

The most colorable objection to the Obama recess appointments is that they arguably flout a norm, or informal custom, of interbranch interaction. That is, Presidents ordinarily do not resort to their recess appointment power during short recesses. It is understood on both sides that the Framers originally contemplated a Congress that would convene only a few months a year. They gave the President a power of recess appointment so that he could keep the government functioning effectively even when federal legislators had returned to their far-flung farms, law offices, or other places of non-government business. Recognizing that the recess appointments power was thus conferred for a limited purpose and not in order for Presidents to lightly circumvent the Senate’s confirmation role, Presidents have typically – though not invariably – used their recess appointment power sparingly. (A good nonpartisan account appears here.)

As I argued in my 2009 book, Madison’s Nightmare, norms of this sort are essential to the effective functioning of any separation of powers system – perhaps to any non-dictatorial system of government at all. A system of separated powers can work only if each branch refrains from pressing its powers to the utmost limits of textual plausibility under a written Constitution. However aggressive the interbranch competition for policy influence, each branch must ultimately respect the purposes and capacities that the Constitution assigns to its sister branches. From the end of the McCarthy era through the end of the Carter Administration, Congress and the executive typically acted in this spirit of mutual restraint, even as the country navigated its way through the upheavals of Vietnam and the civil rights revolution.

Since the Reagan Administration, however – and most especially since the second Reagan Administration – these norms have been under steady attack. The attackers usually – though not invariably – are right-wing Republicans who quite correctly view a checks and balances system as an obstacle to their capacity to jerk our national government onto a profoundly more conservative course than is warranted by public sentiment.

For example, nothing in the Constitution explicitly forbade the Reagan Administration to circumvent the appropriations process and fund its own foreign policy in Central America. Nothing in the Constitution explicitly rejects lying about a sexual affair as a ground for impeachment. Nowhere does the Constitution impose a time limit on Senate consideration for routine executive and judicial appointments. But the Iran-Contra affair, the Clinton impeachment, and the GOP use of the Senate filibuster to impose unprecedented delays in staffing both the executive and judicial branches nonetheless stand out as breaches of constitutional governance. These practices may or may not be unconstitutional, but they exhibit a glaring disrespect for the purposes and capacities assigned to non-GOP-controlled government institutions.

Seen in this light, President Obama’s recourse to his recess appointment power was really the only plausible way of responding to a pattern of Senate behavior – induced by the Republican minority – that paid no regard to his authority and obligation to appoint officers of the United States to a host of positions critical to effective governance. It is notable that he targeted his latest appointments with just that limiting principle in mind – that is, he filled vacancies only in agencies that were utterly disabled from carrying out their legally assigned missions because leadership nominations were languishing in the Senate.

Constitutionally, President Obama could have gone further. He could have filled other executive branch positions that the Senate has been holding hostage for reasons unrelated to the merits of the nominees. He could have filled judicial vacancies. He could have used his power under Article II to adjourn Congress, thus creating his own recess of the Senate during which he could make these appointments.

That President Obama has not gone to these lengths demonstrates a commendable inclination to continue to respect the Senate’s confirmation power. It also continues a tradition of making recess judicial appointments only in extremely rare circumstances, in large part because – although such appointments are constitutional under the text – their limited duration stands in tension with the Framers’ conspicuous commitment to judicial independence, embodied in the constitutional guarantee of lifetime tenure.

Some Senate Republicans have apparently reacted to President Obama by threatening to be even less cooperative with the executive branch. But it’s hard to see how much less cooperation they could offer. The intransigence of the House Tea Party Caucus, plus the GOP Senate minority’s filibuster abuse, has rendered the 2011 session of Congress the least productive in terms of non-trivial legislation since the late 19th century. The White House has correctly discerned that the public has tired of this obstinacy. As Larry Lessig has said, our uncooperative Congress has earned approval ratings probably lower than the approval ratings of Parliament in the thirteen colonies on the eve of the American Revolution. (One suspects, if the public were yet more familiar with the bills the House was trying to pass, its opinion would actually be even lower.) For this reason, the White House is surely undaunted by the prospect of congressional hearings examining its appointments powers. The charts and graphs the Administration can produce illustrating the current Senate’s unprecedented delays for even the most routine appointments would make for impressive video.

The real danger in the latest recess appointments is that subsequent Presidents may well use President Obama’s expansive understanding of “recess” to staff courts and agencies with controversial nominees who they know Senators are opposing on the merits. In a fine analysis of the situation, Larry Tribe has argued that the Cordray and NLRB appointments do not “free the president to make recess appointments whenever the Senate breaks for lunch or takes routine weekend vacations that conceal no objective scheme to frustrate presidential appointments.” He concludes that “the president can resort to recess appointments of this kind only in instances of transparent and intolerable burdens on his authority. Article II charges him to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed’; this duty, combined with appointment and recess-appointment powers, requires an irreducible minimum of presidential authority to appoint officials when the appointments are essential to execute duly enacted statutes.”

I have two related fears about this speculation, however. The first is that, although Professor Tribe has stated an excellent limiting principle for the exercise of the recess appointments power, it is not clear that courts would enforce it. Federal courts typically resist getting in the middle of power clashes between the elected branches, and sorting out which recess appointments are and are not proper under even a normatively compelling (and easy to enforce) constitutional principle may simply be a job they are unwilling to do.

My second fear is based on the right-wing’s willingness – even eagerness – to accelerate whatever innovations in interbranch struggle that the Democrats originate. The Democrats want to filibuster appellate court nominees? Fine, the Republican will filibuster trial court nominees. A Democratic Senate majority comes up with an “in forma session” ruse to try to stop a Republican President from making recess appointments? Fine, a GOP Senate minority will seek to accomplish the same result by enlisting the GOP House majority to stop the Senate majority from adjourning. Talk about using a constitutional power for an unintended purpose!

President Obama’s most recent recess appointments are themselves a modest counterpunch against attempts by House and Senate Republicans to subvert his capacity to perform his constitutionally assigned role. If the Senate wants the President to back off, it should start performing its confirmation role responsibly. If recent history is any guide, however, Republican leaders – who no doubt hope to control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2013 – will be thinking up rather different contingency plans should divided government persist. These plans are likely to intensify an already corrosive breakdown of interbranch norms of respect and cooperation that are the key to effective governance.

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Memo to Obama: Use Market Jitters to Seize the Initiative

Posted by Peter M. Shane on August 10, 2011

Thanks to the debt ceiling deal no one liked, official Washington seems poised now to wait for a cumbersome congressional process to drag the country again through an extended spectacle of pathetic political gamesmanship. Critical points on the time line between now and January 1 include the end of the fiscal year (September 30), at which point the government shuts down unless appropriations are enacted, the November 23 reporting date for the congressional Committee of Twelve, and the December 23 deadline for a congressional vote to head off sequestration. As things stand, we can expect an eleventh-hour, 59th-minute political nightmare on each of these dates.

Here’s an idea for the president: Don’t wait. Seize the initiative. Offer a progressive plan within the next two weeks, and demand Congress enact it by the end of the fiscal year.

The parameters for the plan should be straightforward. The Committee of Twelve is supposed to produce $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction. Make $2 trillion your target. But achieve half that deficit reduction through revenue enhancement and economic growth generated by a redirection of government spending away from low-return subsidies and towards investment in infrastructure, the clean energy sector, and research and development, plus short-term stimulus through extended unemployment insurance and a payroll tax moratorium.

And now for the hard part: Announce you are putting on the table the option of an October 1 government shutdown unless Congress enacts a plan that you find acceptable – a plan that must be jobs-and-growth oriented, protective of the middle class, and focused on revenues, not just cuts. (At the very least, this will tempt the GOP to taunt you with a continuing resolution too good not to sign.)

You will be standing on high ground. Just keep repeating the words, “families,” “middle class,” “growth,” and “jobs.” The markets want to see the United States take actual leadership and show it can address problems before we have a gun, already cocked, to our collective head. Please lead the way.

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What the President Should Say If Congress Misses the Debt Ceiling Deadline

Posted by Peter M. Shane on July 28, 2011

My Fellow Americans:

Today, for the first time in American history, the Congress of the United States has effectively prohibited the government from paying its bills. In the last 50 years, the debt ceiling has been raised 74 times, ten of those times since 2001. Those votes have been bipartisan. They have occurred under both Democratic and Republican presidents. They have been all but universally regarded as essential to preserving the full faith and credit of the United States. Yet a minority faction of today’s congressional representatives — in the face of proposed deficit-cutting plans with overwhelming support from the American people — has taken the unprecedented step of allowing us to slide into potential default.

As a result of this inaction — this betrayal of the trust of the American people — we must face a hard truth. If the government continues to spend the funds Congress has already appropriated at the rate Congress anticipated when it appropriated those funds, we will simply run out of money before the end of the fiscal year. We will face an across-the-board government shutdown, with no end in sight. We cannot let this happen.

Because this situation is unprecedented, there is simply no clear law to guide my actions in response to this crisis. Read literally, the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 allows me to defer spending that Congress has already authorized on the basis of what that statute calls “contingencies.” It has been argued that I may use that authority to choose selectively, designating obligations to meet now and obligations to defer in order to avoid a shutdown of government services. At the same time, I am also aware of arguments that the Act does not give me such authority — that a statute intended to control impoundments cannot faithfully be interpreted to allow a president to postpone so much spending at his sole discretion. If these critics are right — if the Impoundment Act does not give me such authority — then my decisions not to spend money on particular programs would violate the many statutory provisions under which Congress mandated that those funds be spent.

It has also been argued that Section Four of the Fourteenth Amendment allows me to ignore the statutory limit on incurring government debt. That section provides, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned.” Some legal scholars argue that this provision authorizes the president to continue borrowing whatever funds are necessary both to meet our obligations to creditors and to continue funding government programs at the levels Congress has already approved. I have already expressed my doubts about the validity of this interpretation. I have been inclined to agree with those who read Section 4 as obligating Congress to provide for the repayment of debt, not to permit the president to ignore statutory limits on borrowing.

The fact is, however, that I am now faced with a no-win choice. I could cease government borrowing and defer some government spending, on a selective basis, under the uncertain authority of the Impoundment Control Act. But that would risk violating the many statutory provisions under which Congress has provided for government spending. I would risk disabling key government programs from operating effectively. Alternatively, if I continue government borrowing under the uncertain authority of the Fourteenth Amendment, then I will certainly be violating the statutory limit on federal debt and I will perhaps be misinterpreting our most fundamental law.

Let me clear about this conundrum. The Constitution obligates the president to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” I cannot duck that obligation. Yet, if I rely on one statute to withhold some government spending in order to advance what I regard as our critical priorities, then I risk violating some of the statutes through which Congress has directed the executive branch to spend money. The government spends only money that Congress appropriates; spending as Congress directs is, in most cases, a legal obligation. On the other hand, if I continue borrowing to fulfill these congressional mandates and to repay government debts that were lawfully incurred, then I am violating the debt ceiling and risk misinterpreting the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment. The legal path is not clearly marked either way.

Faced with this choice, I am compelled by both conscience and necessity to take the latter option. Deferring government spending under the Impoundment Control Act would require me to claim unprecedented discretion to pick and choose among programs that Congress has already determined to move forward. It would also leave the full faith and credit of the United States at risk, and impose numerous and unforeseen hardships on Americans who depend on the smooth and efficient operation of government programs already in place. If, however, I breach the statutory limit on borrowing, my assertion of power under the Fourteenth Amendment has a clear limit.  I can borrow no more than required in order to repay those debts that have been already been incurred pursuant to law without curtailing those government programs for which Congress has appropriated funds.  This is not a blank check. It is fulfilling a set of mandates that Congress itself has imposed.

I have thus decided to continue borrowing funds on behalf of the United States in order to repay those debts that have been already been incurred pursuant to law and to continue those government programs Congress has already authorized. In so doing, I believe I am faithfully executing both Congress’s current appropriations statutes and the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment to insure that the federal government would never repudiate its lawfully incurred obligations.

I would welcome congressional action to ratify this decision by statute. I would welcome even more the kind of balanced approach to debt reduction, deficit-cutting, and revenue enhancement that I have been urging on Congress for months and that can finally put our fiscal house in order for the next decade and beyond. Until Congress can reach some such agreement, however, I owe it to Congress and to the American people to stave off irreparable economic harm and to keep in effective operation the functions of our federal government for which Congress has already provided and on which the American people rely.

Thank you, and may God bless you and the United States of America.

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What May a President Do if He Cannot Pay Our Bills Without Borrowing and Borrowing More Money is Unlawful?

Posted by Peter M. Shane on July 19, 2011

An obvious question, should Congress not manage to fend off default within the next two weeks, is: What does the President do then?  If the President cannot pay off America’s creditors and keep all government programs running, what legal authority does he have to deal with the crisis?

A little history helps to put the answer in context.  In the nineteenth century, Congress simply did not have a budgeting process.  It appropriated funds for various federal purposes, confident that customs revenues would outpace federal spending.  In the unlikely event – unlikely, that is, before the Civil War – that appropriations outpaced revenues, Congress implicitly left it to the President to keep expenditures and revenues in line by not spending appropriations that were permissive rather than mandatory.

Congress did not adopt a formal budgeting process until 1921, when it created the Bureau of the Budget (now, the Office of Management and Budget) in the White House and the Government Accounting Office (now, the Government Accountability Office).  The 1921 Budget Act was the first to task the President with presenting Congress each year with a proposed budget for its consideration.

Flash forward now to the Nixon Administration.  Congress had created a statutory framework to help structure the exercise of executive branch spending discretion.  But Nixon, misinterpreting nineteenth century practice, insisted he had inherent constitutional authority to “impound” – that is, not spend – government funds that he thought had been unwisely appropriated.

In the wake of Watergate and in response to Nixon’s abuses of impoundment power, Congress rebelled.  It said, in effect, that whatever authority presidents enjoyed to manage government funds was a consequence of authority delegated to the President by Congress, either implicitly or explicitly.  And to prevent any future claims of inherent presidential impoundment authority under the Constitution, Congress enacted the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 (ICA).

Simplifying things a bit, the ICA can be understood as dividing presidential decisions not to spend appropriated money into two categories – rescissions and deferrals.  Rescinding funds means never spending them; deferring funds means not spending them right away.

The ICA basically took away any presidential right of rescission.  If the President wants to cancel altogether some congressionally authorized spending, he must send his recommendation to Congress.  The rescission then occurs only if, within 45 days, Congress enacts a new statute approving the proposed non-spending.  In other words, unless Congress affirmatively approves the President’s decision, sooner or later, he has to spend the money Congress appropriates for mandatory expenditure.

In 1974, however, Congress treated deferrals differently.  Presidents could propose to defer authorized spending for a fixed period of time, and those proposals would take effect unless either the House or the Senate voted to override the proposal – a so-called legislative veto.  The problem with this arrangement turned out to be that legislative vetoes are unconstitutional.  So said the Supreme Court in 1983.

At that point, the question became:  Did the President now retain his authority to defer spending, no longer subject to a legislative veto?  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit answered, “Sometimes.”

Sometimes, that is, Presidents want to defer spending because they think Congress did the wrong thing in funding a particular project or activity.  Deferring spending on such programs really amounted to a policy objection to Congress’s approved programs or activities.  According to the D.C. Circuit, the Supreme Court’s decision to nullify legislative vetoes effectively took the President’s power of “policy deferral” away.  Congress would never have enacted any policy deferral authority in the wake of the Nixon Administration, unless it knew it could retain legislative veto authority.  In “law-speak,” “policy deferral” authority could not be “severed” from the legislative veto.

Sometimes, however, presidents want to defer spending because, however, unobjectionable a program, deferring spending is necessary to provide for unforeseen contingencies.  Sometimes, for example, deferred spending enables the government to achieve savings through unanticipated efficiencies or changes in program requirements.  Such “programmatic deferrals,” according to the Court of Appeals, were still permissible.  They were instances of good management, not policy resistance.

Reacting to this decision, Congress amended the ICA to reflect the policy-versus- program distinction.  The ICA now basically prohibits “policy deferrals,” but allows “programmatic deferrals.” The President may recommend deferrals to achieve savings or otherwise “to provide for contingencies.”  Such deferrals take effect unless Congress affirmatively legislates to overturn them – which, of course, the President may veto if he chooses.

So, this is where the President would stand on August 2 if informed that government spending at current rates cannot continue without further borrowing, which, in turn, would violate the statutory limit on incurring government debt.  The President could claim authority to defer government spending in such amounts as necessary to avoid further borrowing.  He would presumably cite as his legal authority 2 U.S.C. sec. 684(b)(1), which authorizes deferrals “to provide for contingencies.”

Of course, exercising his statutory “programmatic deferral” authority in this way would be deeply ironic; the President could select expenditures to defer or not defer only by making policy judgments about spending levels that are different from the policy judgments that Congress enacted in its appropriations Acts.  In the words of separation of powers scholar Louis Fisher:  “Recognizing a broad power of impoundment by the President to handle the federal government in the absence of a higher debt limit would permit the President to radically change budget priorities by deferring this but not that — precisely the same kind of power that got Nixon into trouble.”

And yet there seems no other option.  If there is not enough money in the till to pay all the bills that are due and further borrowing is impermissible, something has to give.  The idea that the Fourteenth Amendment empowers the President to unilaterally raise the debt limit is implausible.  The President has statutory authority to respond to contingencies; he would have to use it.

Because nothing in the ICA would instruct the President on what basis to choose appropriations to defer – that is, what commitments not to keep — he would have to decide, on his own initiative, what projects and activities to put on hold to keep from violating the law.  Congress would thus have tacitly abdicated to the executive branch a huge swath of the power over government fiscal policy that the Framers quite deliberately vested in Congress.  The results, for good government — and certainly, for government as know it — would be calamitous.

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Madisonianism Misunderstood: A Reply to Professors Posner and Vermeule

Posted by Peter M. Shane on April 8, 2011

I disagree so deeply and at so many points with The Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic, the new book by Eric Posner and Adrien Vermeule, that I feel compelled to begin on a positive note.  Theirs is a challenging, provocative work.  Regular engagement with interlocutors as thoughtful and well-read as these two authors would deepen anyone’s thinking.  To those who remain normatively committed to a robust rule-of-law vision of presidential authority, they pose a more interesting challenge than do putative constitutional originalists who find the founding generation oddly sanguine (and modern) in their thinking about executive power. 

In addition, two implications emerge from The Executive Unbound that I wholeheartedly support.  One is a recognition of the challenge (the authors would say “impossibility,” which I do not endorse) of reshaping the political landscape in a way that would make the revitalization of legal checks and balances a realistic program.  The second is the importance of strengthening the institutions that check the President politically, not just legally.  I agree enthusiastically.

 For Professors Posner and Vermeule, professorial contestation about Framer intent is quaintly beside the point.  As they describe it, the Madisonian vision of checks and balances simply fails as a description of how the administrative state works.  And, because, as they depict that vision, it actually cannot be implemented, it ought not to be our normative framework either.  Instead, we should recognize that, under current institutional arrangements, we have an executive branch that can pretty much do as it pleases within constraints that are significant, but almost always more political than legal.  Our normative ideal should be the strengthening of these extralegal institutional constraints to try to insure that what the executive branch winds up doing with its inevitable discretion is at least consistent with public opinion. 

 So here are my four essential points of disagreement.  First, they misrepresent – or perhaps “ignore” is more accurate – the core aim of Madisonian constitutionalism; it is not just to avoid dictatorship, but chiefly to thwart the spirit of faction and to produce government in the public interest.  Second, I find them too uncritically enamored of a rational choice perspective on how politics operates. Third, I think the wooden checks-and-balances/rule of law vision that the authors dismiss is largely a straw man.  At least, although they do me the honor of including me by name among those whose views they are rebutting, I am quite sure they are not describing the Madisonian vision outlined in my own work.  Fourth, I reject the idea that we should dismiss a normative vision because it cannot be perfectly instituted, especially given that calls for the rule of law and calls for bolstering extralegal forms of accountability are far from mutually exclusive.

 At the heart of the legal tradition that Professors Posner and Vermeule attack is supposedly what the authors call “tyrannaphobia,” a “horror of dictatorship” that, in the American context, the authors think to be largely irrational.  But tyrannaphobia of this sort – a fear of legally unchecked rule by executive authorities who cannot be replaced by democratic means – is not what chiefly animates Madisonianism.  Madison’s central preoccupation was the curbing of faction.  “By a faction,” Madison wrote in his famous Federalist No. 10, “I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” 

Fears of imminent American dictatorship are plainly overblown in contemporary America – one wishes Glenn Beck’s viewers would take Posner and Vermeule’s argument to heart on this point.  But “faction,” in the Madisonian sense, could hardly be a more serious problem.  Americans who worried about Bush and Cheney calling off elections were paranoid.  But progressives are right on target in worrying whether our politics are driven unduly by the self-interest of the very rich and the corporations through which they wield much of their economic and political power.  What appears to be government’s frequent, even systemic inattention to equity for the poor and for the middle class is a profound democratic defect, and one that Madisonian constitutional design might have been expected to check.

Part of the problem here, I suspect, is that the preferred Posner-Vermeule analytic toolset – chiefly, rational choice political theory – has no convincing way of understanding “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” apart from the expressed preferences of the citizenry at any given moment.  How to understand the “public interest” is a tough and enduring debate, and the authors pretty much sidestep it.  In appearing to accept public opinion as measured in polling or in elections as a full expression of the public interest, however, the authors run into a very obvious problem.  It is a problem that the authors actually diagnose astutely with regard to Congress. 

Posner and Vermeule argue that members of Congress are likely always to under-protect checks and balances because the benefits of checks and balances will largely inure to later generations and thus cannot be captured by contemporary political actors.  But this is every bit as true of contemporary voters.  Contemporary voters, if they act totally according to rational self-interest, will quite likely under-protect America from the effects of climate change and deficit financing.  They will undervalue education, pure research – and even checks and balances and the rule of law.  But, whatever the public interest is, it must surely involve some degree of care for future welfare even at the cost of short-term sacrifice.  Nudging America towards a yet more plebiscitary politics, as Posner and Vermeule seem to prefer, is thus quite risky for the public interest for just the reasons Madison feared.  This is one of the two most fundamental reasons why I think the authors’ exclusive reliance on rational choice theory to evaluate both political behavior and institutional design is misguided. 

The second reason is that rational choice theory largely ignores the mix of ideology, identity and self-conception that motivates much political behavior. In my own discussions of the rule of law, I emphasize the importance of these factors as they operate within government institutions to undergird the norms, customs and conventions that give life to the rule of law.  Posner and Vermeule dismiss any reliance on such emergent behaviors as having explanatory or normative value because champions of their importance, such as I, have not rigorously specified exactly how such behaviors work.  That is a fair challenge, although I hasten to point out that it’s a challenge to Posner and Vermeule’s own work, as well.  In relying on Americans’ skepticism towards executive overreaching and their practices in becoming informed citizens, Posner and Vermeule are also relying on norms, customs and conventions.  They just locate the relevant norms, customs and conventions in the electorate, not in the government.

The “rule of law” vision that Posner and Vermeule expressly dismiss is a vision in which rules enacted by Congress and enforced by courts are sufficient, in and of themselves, to constrain executive behavior.  The more discretion that the executive enjoys that is unchecked by enforceable rules, the less “law” there is in our “rule of law.”  But the “rule of law” for which I yearn in Madison’s Nightmare: How Executive Power Threatens American Democracy (2009) is not this either/or version.  To quote myself:

“What [I describe] is a version of the rule of law that is not formalistic, but institutional.  Checks and balances, in operation, depend on an assemblage of norms, cooperative arrangements, and informal coordination activities that actually fit the political science definition of an “unstructured institution.”  James March and Johan Olsen have usefully defined an “institution” as “a relatively enduring collection of rules and organized practices, embedded in structures of meaning and resources that are relatively invariant in the face of turnover of individuals and relatively resilient to the idiosyncratic preferences and expectations of individuals and changing external circumstances. Sometimes the relevant “rules and organized practices” are exceedingly clear and documented, like the rules inside the cover of a board game.  But sometimes, as political scientist Kenneth Shepsle has pointed out, these rules and practices “are more amorphous and implicit rather than formalized.”  We still recognize them as institutions because they “may be described as practices and recognized by the patterns they induce,” but compared to, say, a game of golf, they are, relatively speaking, “unstructured institutions.” Understanding the rule of law as an unstructured institution provides a far more attractive account of what citizens expect from a “government of laws” and a far more plausible account of why they might just get it; it provides an account of government behavior that rests on observable patterns of actual human behavior, not just the formal specification of legal rules in the form of written documents.”

Posner and Vermeule may regard this account as insufficiently rigorous, or they may say that “norms, cooperative arrangements, and informal coordination activities” are really politics, not law.  To those who participate in them, however, they are recognizable as law, and that recognition is a great deal of what gives them whatever institutional power they have.

At the proverbial end of the day, it may be that Posner and Vermeule would be content to accede to all these objections, at least for argument’s sake, but might still say: They don’t matter.  In their opening footnote, they are generous enough to group me with Bruce Ackerman and Theodore Lowi as authors of “diagnoses of decline” that are “so convincing” that we should recognize our “prescriptions for revival” of the rule of law as “futile.”  What Ackerman, Lowi, and I describe of political behavior, in other words, “if true, rule[s] out [our] prescriptions.”  It may be that the authors are more about right about this than I would like to acknowledge, although either accepting or rejecting their proposition involves as much faith as analysis, and I have always been the optimist in my particular household. 

I do want to say, however, that the impossibility of vindicating the rule of law at every turn is not a persuasive argument for abandoning the rule of law as a normative vision.  Every ethical system worth its salt aims for a pervasiveness of virtue that no one expects to be realized fully.  Moreover, along with Cynthia Farina (most notably among administrative law scholars), I have long argued that democratic legitimacy cannot be convincingly grounded on any one foundational principle.  The rule of law is important, but not everything.

Abandoning the rule of law as a normative vision seems especially foolish when embracing a political agenda for the reinvigoration of checks and balances is arguably consistent with the reform program that Posner and Vermeule would prefer.  They urge reformers to shift attention away from the rule of law “to the political constraints on the president and the institutions through which those political constraints operate–chief among them elections, parties, bureaucracy and the media.”  But the reform agenda they advocate would significantly enhance the prospects for the rule of law, as well.  Near the end of Madison’s Nightmare, I wrote: “[T]he practice of constitutionalism within the halls of American government will be shaped, most profoundly, by changes in the quality of our collective democratic life in society at large.”  Rule of law advocates would surely be enthusiastic if Americans constructively turned to the checking potential of our extralegal institutions.

To return to my positive note, I do hope readers more sympathetic to my critique than to The Executive Unbound will nonetheless take time to wrestle with the Posner-Vermeule line of reasoning.  They have pitched their ideas in a distinctly academic voice, but the debate they are seeking goes to the heart of American constitutionalism.  At the core of the debate are very different approaches to both democracy and public welfare.  Professors Posner and Vermeule render a service in adding to that debate an important and distinctive set of arguments.

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Not Defending DOMA: A Conscientious and Responsible Decision

Posted by Peter M. Shane on February 25, 2011

A distinguished fellow law professor, Adam Winkler, has recently argued that the Obama Administration’s decision not to defend the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is an abdication of the responsibilities of the presidential office.  He wrote:  “For decades, presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, have taken the position that it’s the executive’s obligation to defend the constitutionality of all federal laws. The basis for this view is the Constitution’s command that the president ‘shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.'”

This position, however, is wrong on history and reflects an incomplete reading of the Constitution.

In analyzing this question, it’s important to distinguish two very different things:  the executive duty to carry out the law and the President’s duty to defend statutes challenged in court.  On the first matter, Attorneys General have long set a very high bar before opining that the executive branch can decline to carry out the law.  In 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, justly infamous on other grounds, penned a line that Attorneys General have consistently followed on the issue of whether questionable laws should be enforced:  “Ordinarily, . . .it is not within the province of the Attorney General to declare an Act of Congress unconstitutional–at least, where it does not involve any conflict between the prerogatives of the legislative department and those of the executive department.” 

The only likely defensible exception to this stance would occur if Congress were to enact law plainly violating well-established constitutional rights.  Thus, for example, if Congress purported to reestablish racial segregation in D.C. public schools, the executive branch could rightly decline implementation.

In reaching this position, Attorneys General – like Presidents – have to take into account two different provisions of the Constitution.  One is the “Take Care Clause” mentioned by Professor Winkler.  The central purpose of that clause is to prohibit the executive suspension of statutes, a key protection for the integrity of the legislative process going back to the 1688 Declaration of Rights in England. 

The other provision, however, is the presidential oath, which requires Presidents to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution” – presumably, all of it.  In carrying out laws that the President regards as unconstitutional, he might seem to be in violation of this straightforward vow.  But, regarding unconstitutional laws, the courts are available to protect the public from their operation.  The danger to constitutional checks and balances of allowing Presidents simply to ignore laws they disagree with is too obvious and too grave to be ignored.  Presidents simply have to strike a balance.  And, with regard to legal implementation, the right balance is, almost always, to carry out the laws Congress enacts.

Defending laws in court is a different matter for three obvious reasons.  First, the executive is not claiming to have the final say on legal implementation — or even interpretation.  The challenged law will remain on the books – and enforced – unless the courts rule otherwise.

Second, the executive stance does not deprive the law of defenders.  In the case of DOMA, for example, courts are likely to allow Congress to intervene and offer a defense.  This is exactly what happened when the executive branch declined to defend the constitutionality of the legislative veto in the 1983 Chadha case.

Third, government attorneys are officers of the court.  As advocates, they are bound by professional and ethical norms.  An important question, then, for the Justice Department is how far to go in pressing arguments in a judicial forum if the Department does not think the arguments are valid. 

President Reagan’s first attorney general, William French Smith, articulated a very restrictive stance on this question:  “In my view, the Department has the duty to defend the constitutionality of an Act of Congress whenever a reasonable argument can be made in its support, even if the Attorney General and the lawyers examining the case conclude that the argument may ultimately be unsuccessful in the courts.” 

His immediate predecessor, however, Benjamin Civiletti, staked out a position that left more room for discretionary judgment.  In a letter to a Senate committee, he wrote:  “The Attorney General has a duty to defend and enforce the Acts of Congress. He also has a duty to defend and enforce the Constitution. If he is to perform these duties faithfully, he must exercise conscientious judgment. He must examine the Acts of Congress and the Constitution and determine what they require of him; and if he finds in a given case that there is conflict between the requirements of the one and the requirements of the other, he must acknowledge his dilemma and decide how to deal with it. That task is inescapably his.”

Attorney General Holder’s letter explaining the decision not to defend DOMA represents a rigorous and conscientious implementation of the Civiletti view.  It does not deny, as Civiletti went on to say, that “when the Attorney General is confronted with . . . a choice, it is almost always the case that he can best discharge the responsibilities of his office by defending and enforcing the Act of Congress.”  But it also does not portend any executive branch power grab.  Taking this careful, highly deliberate step in defense of what the President and the Attorney General take to be the right view of the Constitution is consistent with the best interpretation of the executive’s obligations towards the Constitution and the rule of law.

In short, one may debate the Attorney General’s legal analysis – although, for the record, I agree with it.  In taking their stance, however, President Obama and the Attorney General have acted well within the institutional norms long followed, to good effect, by their predecessors.

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