How to judge the constitutionality of President Obama’s State of the Union ideas

January 28

President Obama’s State of the Union address is expected to lay out how he will “bypass Congress” by acting through executive orders to advance policies that he cannot get passed in the legislature. There is a major problem with this, familiar from high school civics: under the Constitution, Congress cannot be bypassed. Indeed, it plays the primary role in setting national policy.

Yet despite the White House’s rhetoric, many of the policies discussed tonight may be constitutionally unproblematic. Here’s a rough test. The president can exercise some legislative powers when i) Congress has delegated such power to the president by statute – most executive orders implement statutorily-given discretion, OR, ii) the President is exercising one of his office’s inherent constitutional powers.

For the domestic policy issues the President addresses in the State of the Union, inherent presidential powers are an unlikely source – national economic policy falls squarely within Congress’s purview. However, numerous statutes or gaps in statutes may have given the President the patchwork of authority that he will try to leverage to advance his policy goals – we will see. In such situations, the presidential action is constitutional. So that is what to look for: statutory authorization.

But if the president does have some kind of statutory authority, he is not “bypassing Congress” – he is serving it. That is, he is using the power given by Congress in the past, and which the current congress has chosen not to repeal.

While the proposals announced tonight may turn out to be constitutional – certainly administration lawyers will be ready to cite statutes they purport authorize the action. The president is doubtless using such language to emphasize what he sees as the obstinacy on the Hill. However, the (hopefully) overblown rhetoric about “bypassing Congress” because is harmful to constitutional discourse, and will certainly attract criticism suspicion and criticism.

The president, on these matters, cannot bypass Congress. Nor is legislative inaction due to different views in the House and Senate a bug – it is a feature designed to promote deliberation and limit government action.

Eugene Kontorovich is a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, and an expert on constitutional and international law. He also writes and lectures frequently about the Arab-Israel conflict.
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