On Friday, Andrew Prokop wrote a great article over at Vox, What Could a Republican President Do With Obama’s Executive Power Theories? It deals with the argument that many people have made to the effect that if Obama can prioritize immigration then a Republican president can decide that he isn’t going to enforce the tax law. This is an argument that Jonathan Chait has made, and Prokop even quoted him, “What if a Republican president announced that he would stop enforcing the payment of estate taxes?” It’s a very frightening idea.
But I have a counter to it: norms are restrained by public opinion when it comes to the president. The reason the Republicans have gotten away with so much norm destruction is that the people (even the media to a large extent) don’t pay attention to Congress. It is all thought to be too technical and not of direct influence on policy — even though it most definitely is. And we see this very clearly in Obama’s decision. Why didn’t he just stop deportations of all 11.4 million undocumented residents? Because there are limits to this power.
Prokop discussed three areas where we liberals might be concerned about what President Ted Cruz would do: taxes, environmental law, and Obamacare. I was most impressed with the issue of taxes. So what would stop Cruz from prioritizing enforcement of tax law to incomes less than $20,000 per year? Apart from norms, nothing. The problem is that all those taxes not paid by people making above $20,000 per year would still be owed. When a Democrat (Or simply a reasonable Republican; oh, I crack myself up!) got back in the White House, all those taxes would be due — with interest and penalties.
And then there is the issue that Republican presidents have already done this sort of thing. Ezra Klein pointed out two important ones in a recent article, The Best Arguments for, and Against, Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration. Take special note of the last clause:
That’s actually the crux of the matter, which I haven’t paid nearly enough attention to. Given the the Republicans are absolutely certain that Obama brought National Socialism to the United States, they are going to push every advantage once they have the White House. Obama doesn’t need to actually do anything; the Republicans have known before he was elected that he was doing things that were totally unconstitutional.
Prokop noted that the problem of later enforcement would apply to environmental regulations. And that Mitt Romney was planning to not enforce the individual mandate if elected in 2012 regardless. I would add to this. The individual mandate is not some liberal conspiracy. It is the most conservative part of the law. It protects insurance companies, not individuals. So if the Republicans want to harm their biggest constituency:
Matthew Dickinson wrote another interesting article over at his blog, No, Obama’s Executive Action Did Not Violate Governing Norms. He started by noting that even people on the right say they like the results of Obama’s executive action, “Instead, they direct their ire at Obama’s apparent willingness to violate some unspoken ‘norm’ that apparently constrained previous presidents from making significant policy change of this magnitude absent an overarching emergency.” Before I get to his argument, I think this is interesting because of course conservatives will not want to admit that they just hate undocumented kids and their families. As discussed in Winner-Take-All Politics, conservatives always resort to process arguments when the policy arguments are too obviously vile.
Dickinson goes on to argue that presidential norms are kind of mythical anyway. The main thing that keeps presidents in check is that other branches of government push back — as they were designed to. As far as I can tell, Dickinson is somewhat conservative. Fundamentally, his argument is the same one made by John Boehner that the executive action will make the Republicans less likely to get along. But I think Dickinson in wrong about this. I suspect that Republicans won’t do much but bluster. They don’t actually care about the issue, but it does give them a lot of political ammunition. And in 2016, the executive action could be a difficult issue with the Democratic nominee having to finesse the question, “Will you reverse the executive action on immigration?”
Ultimately, politics continues on as it always has. And I don’t see any reason to think that what Obama has done is unprecedented. I discussed the biggest issue last week, Obama’s Executive Action Is a Double Win. When Republicans are already certain Obama is Stalin reincarnated, nothing he actually does will affect how the Republican Party acts.