We are living in politically dangerous times, what with critical fiscal decisions now log-jammed in the Congressional divide, but they are politically interesting times as well. Symbolic of this is conservative outrage over President Obama’s use of the Executive Order to achieve some of the immigration goals of the legislatively thwarted Dream Act while probably improving his stance with Hispanic and Latino voters. An example of this appeared on the op-ed page of our newspaper the other day when guest columnist Don Ray indicted Obama with the following phrases: “disregard for the Constitution”, “refused to enforce many of our immigration laws”, “violation of constitutionally passed federal law”, “failed to uphold the oath of office”. He ended by accusing the President of doing this for “totally political” reasons, despite the President’s long support for the principles of the Dream Act.
Personally, I think the Dream Act is a positive thing that would be very good for America, but GOP opposition has been motivated by the politics of xenophobia in our society and a very strong case can be made that it was opposed by many in the GOP simply to deny the Democratic administration a political victory. There are powerful arguments for its propriety, including a powerful essay in this week’s Time Magazine and the announcement by GOP rising star Senator Marco Rubio that “he would come to the U.S. illegally if he had to.” But regardless of that specific issue, Mr. Ray’s objections motivated me to review the subject of Executive Orders on Wikipedia. What I found does not support Mr. Ray’s accusations, most of which would appear on their face to be criminal and impeachable offenses.
Presidents have been issuing orders since 1789 and it is my sense that they are not only useful but a necessary device to keep the federal government functioning while the difficult legislative process grinds slowly on. As everyone should know, this is particularly true in the present partisan election year. The government began numbering Executive Orders in 1862 and that their number has now exceeded 13,000 indicates their functionality. Importantly, only two of those have ever been overturned, despite the options available to Congress to override the President with a supermajority vote or even impeachment. Thus, President Obama is not a criminal, nor even an evil man for doing what he did. He is doing his job just like so many Presidents before him and the political process is playing out, just as it has over the last two centuries plus. If he declined to do what he felt necessary in the process of running the government, that to me would be a larger offense. What if, for example, the President decided to shut down the government because Congress failed to agree on a budget (which it has)? No national defense, no Social Security checks, no VA hospitals, no nothing. Now that would be criminal. We need to remember that the Executive branch of government is co-equal with the other two, and no less vital.
It is my plea therefore that before you rush to judgement on this issue, as Mr. Ray urges, you visit the moral and economic underpinnings of the issue itself. There is a strong case to be made that President Obama not only made a savvy political move, but one that is right for the country.