What Obama Can Do Without Congress

Thanks to the de facto “sixty vote threshold” Republicans imposed on the Senate via abuse of the filibuster, and then the enhanced power the GOP gained in 2010 by winning control of the House and picking up additional Senate seats, it’s been often assumed that the Obama administration has little choice but to compromise actively with congressional Republicans, or–as has actually been the case more often than not–simply give up on enacting key elements of his agenda.

Throughout his first term, however, many progressives have complained that the president has made too little use of executive powers that require no congressional sign-off. Now that Obama has been re-elected and has less to lose, we can expect these complaints to be revived, and sure enough, TNR’s Tim Noah has published a “Unilateralist Manifesto” that lays out seven steps Obama could take–some very audacious, others simply annoying to Republicans–to make significant changes in public policy on his own.

You can and should read the whole thing, but to summarize, Noah recommends (1) executive action to curb carbon emissions–especially via EPA regulation–along with cancellation of the Keystone Excel Pipeline; (2) aggressive use of waivers to provide additional paths to legal status for undocumented workers and their families; (3) firing Federal Housing Finance Agency acting director Ed DeMarco and get someone into the job who is willing to let Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac participate in federal mortgage relief efforts; (4) speeding up promulgation of regulations reforming the credit-reporting agencies; (5) serious steps to punish colleges feeding tuition hikes through irresponsible spending (especially insanely lavish pay for administrators; (6) an attack on rising Medicare costs via new rules making “bundling” of services associated with particular procedures mandatory; (7) eliminating the “family farm” exemption to child labor laws; and (8) reclassifying home care workers as eligible for minimum wage protection.

Noah does not address the obvious objection to his agenda that it will endanger Republican cooperation on big fiscal issues. But “pressure”works both ways: an administration more aggressive about using its executive powers can actually improve its own leverage in the fiscal negotiations. Yes, Republicans may seek legislative action to block some or all of these steps, but with enhanced Democratic strength in the Senate and the president’s veto power, such obstruction will be complicated. Moreover, the question must be asked: how much less cooperative can congressional Republicans be? So whether or not Noah has come up with the ideal “Unilateralist Agenda,” he makes an essential point that others will soon echo.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.