Executive Power in the Age of Obama

lawlessThis edition of Liberty Law Talk features a discussion with George Mason Law School Professor David Bernstein on his recently released book, Lawless: The Obama Administration’s Unprecedented Assault on the Constitution and the Rule of Law.

Our Secretive Presidency

Mount Rushmore

Constitutions built upon a separation of powers were not made to last. The conceit that executive and legislative branches of government might be set in equipoise, and balance each other off over the decades, was amusingly mocked by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. in The Deacon’s Masterpiece (1858):

Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,

That was built in such a logical way

It ran a hundred years to a day…?

The secret to building a carriage, the Deacon thought, was to make each piece as strong as the rest, so that no one part wears out first. And as there’d never be a weakest spot, the shay would go on forever, just like the imagined Madisonian Constitution. Well, it lasted and lasted, the talk of the town, until 100 years to the day it all collapsed at once and the new owner found himself sitting on a pile of ashes. No part wore out first. Everything went simultaneously. “End of the wonderful one-hoss shay. Logic is logic. That’s all I say.”

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Living under Executive Federalism

National mall sunset, Washington DC

Last week, I visited Boston College for a discussion of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions. Herewith an abbreviated version of my remarks. Comments etc. most welcome because the thoughts (some old, some new) are embryonic: I’m working on a more serious, grown-up presentation.

We are living in an age of Executive Federalism. That form of government has some deeply disturbing features, including several that should prompt a judicial response. So far, the Court has given no indication that it has a clue.

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Seeking a Power Agenda

US Capitol Building, Washington DC

Conventional wisdom holds that the Speakership of the House is an impossible job because the Republican caucus is ungovernable. On this narrative, compromise is profane, and conservative purists outflank any constructive proposal leadership makes, thus rendering it toxic to the opposition. The purists are the proverbial bidders in Burke’s “auction of popularity”: “If any [leader] should happen to propose a scheme of liberty, soberly limited, and defined with proper qualifications, he will be immediately outbid by his competitors, who will produce something more splendidly popular.”

Alas: What’s a speaker to do? 

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House v. Burwell

Capitol Flag

Even after the Supreme Court’s lamentable decision in King v. Burwell, litigation over the Affordable Care Act and the administration’s creative implementation of the statute continues. Last week, Judge Rosemary Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held that the House of Representatives has standing to sue the executive (more precisely, Secretaries Burwell and Lew) over their decision to implement an ACA program with unappropriated funds. While it’s certainly a good thing to keep this excretion of a statute in litigation, from here to eternity, there are reasons to be nervous about Judge Collyer’s ruling.

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Enforcing the Separation of Powers: Buckley v. Valeo

Every year, I teach the 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo in my Administrative Law class – not the portion that involves campaign finance regulation, but the part that concerns the Appointments Clause.

Congress had established the Federal Election Commission, which was an independent agency with significant power to administer the campaign finance laws.  Congress, however, had adopted a novel method for appointing the six voting members of the Commission.  It provided that

two members are appointed by the President pro tempore of the Senate “upon the recommendations of the majority leader of the Senate and the minority leader of the Senate.” Two more are to be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, likewise upon the recommendations of its respective majority and minority leaders. The remaining two members are appointed by the President. Each of the six voting members of the Commission must be confirmed by the majority of both Houses of Congress.

This method of appointing the commissioners obviously departs from the Appointments Clause of the Constitution.  The Appointments Clause provides that the President may appoint an officer with the advice and consent of the Senate.  (It is true that the Clause does specify other methods for the appointment of inferior officers, but the commissioners, who run the agency, are clearly not inferior officers.) 

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Administrative Law in Turmoil: New Coke Causes Indigestion

Sir Edward Coke

Harvard Law School’s dynamic AdLaw duo (Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule) has struck again. In The New Coke: On the Plural Aims of Administrative Law  the authors take aim at the insurgent fundamental assault on the legitimacy of the administrative state, under the banner of “the separation of powers.” The challenge is playing a growing role in separate [Supreme Court] opinions, and on occasion, it finds its way into majority opinions as well. Justice Clarence Thomas is the principal advocate, but he has been joined, on prominent occasions, by Justice Antonin Scalia and  sometimes by Justices Samuel Alito and Chief…

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Don’t Run Government Like a Business. Please.

Hand arrange alphabet CEO of acronym Chief Executive Officer.

The panoply of antipolitical candidates seeking the Republican nomination and gaining varyingly intense but correspondingly fleeting degrees of traction—Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson—are united in their aspiration to run government more like a business.

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The Lonely Executive

obama order

Like movie sequels, second editions of notable scholarly books often disappoint. Phillip J. Cooper’s By Order of the President: The Use and Abuse of Executive Direct Action (University Press of Kansas, second edition) is an exception.

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Dodd-Frank’s Frankenstein Creeps Forward