Not everything the president wants to do is illegal

August 8

Republicans have been harshly critical of President Obama’s vigorous assertions of executive power.  The president’s defenders have often erred by suggesting quantitative measures of executive activity respond to claims of overreach. (They don’t.)  At the same time, the President’s critics have  erred by assuming that aggressive executive action in the domestic sphere is necessarily illegal.  This is wrong too.

Whether or not the executive branch is exceeding the scope of its powers or violating the president’s obligation to see that the laws are faithfully executed depends upon the nature and scope of the power that Congress has delegated to the executive branch. It’s a bedrock principle of our constitutional order that executive branch agencies have no inherent powers. Agencies only have that power delegated to them by the legislature.  At the same time, if the legislature grants substantial power and broad discretion to the executive branch, there is nothing unseemly, let alone illegal, about the president exercising that power.

Consider two examples.  I, among others, have criticized illegal actions taken by the Administration in implementing the PPACA.  In various places of the law Congress was quite specific about what is or is not allowed and when certain provisions or obligations take effect.  Because Congress did not also give the president the authority to waive or delay these requirements, the executive branch was without authority to delay the employer mandate or try and wish away the “if you like it you can keep it” mess.  In some other cases, such as the hardship exemption for the individual mandate, it appears the law does allow the administration to do what it’s done.

Now consider immigration.  Many Republicans and conservatives are upset with the Administration’s approach to immigration, in particular the deferred deportation of illegal immigrants.  There may well be good policy arguments against Obama’s policies, but there’s a strong case the actual law is on the president’s side.  As Shikha Dalmia writes in the Washington Examiner, even some conservative immigration law experts believe the president has been acting within the scope of authority delegated to the executive branch by Congress — and that there is room for the president to go even further should he so desire.  In response to claims that President Obama has exceeded his authority in immigration, Dalmia writes:

 Margaret Stock, a Republican immigration lawyer and a Federalist Society member, notes that such accusations don’t appreciate that all this is fully authorized by those laws. “The Immigration and Nationality Act and other laws are chock-full of huge grants of statutory authority to the president,” she explains, a point also emphasized by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in its 2013 brief. “Congress gave the president all these powers, and now they are upset because he wants to use them. Other presidents have used the same authority in the past without an outcry.”

Most accept that the discretion that the executive branch enjoys in enforcing immigration law is as broad as what prosecutors enjoy in criminal law. And the reason is the same: More offenders than means to prosecute makes drastic prioritization necessary. . . . .

for over 50 years, every president has used his prosecutorial discretion to let some foreigners stay – and not just a few individuals but entire groups. John F. Kennedy used executive authority to prevent thousands of Cubans from being deported, as did Jimmy Carter and Bill ClintonGeorge W. Bush used it to temporarily protect illegals stuck in Hurricane Katrina-stricken areas.

Sure, Obama is hinting at going further. But nothing he’s proposing comes close to exceeding the powers Congress has granted him, let alone constituting an “extraordinary abuse of power.”

The point here, as in my post chiding some of the president’s defenders, is that the legal details matter.  Immigration law is an area in which — for good or ill — Congress has given the executive wide latitude.  Under some other laws, including the PPACA, Congress was not so generous.  In evaluating claims of executive overreach it is important to consider the relevant statutes, as whether the President is exceeding his bounds largely depends on the nature and scope of the power Congress delegated in the first place.

UPDATE: For more, see Greg Sargent’s interview with former DHS General Counsel John Sandweg, supplemented with comments from immigration attorney David Leopold.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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