In the introduction to his book Democracy Denied, Phil Kerpen gives us a history lesson on a topic that doesn’t receive much discussion in public: the grab for executive power by presidents through the use of “signing statements.”
Elizabeth Drew made the case against Bush’s abuse of executive power in a lengthy New York Review of Books piece called “Power Grab.” She specifically highlighted Bush’s use of signing statements (a technique to object to elements of a law while signing it, and refusing to enforce those elements), the detention of foreign combatants at Guantanamo, and warrantless wiretaps. She concluded that Bush was a tyrant.
Kerpen explains how the view from the oval office can make one forget campaign promises:
Even the Bush practice that raised the most ire — the use of signing statements — was embraced by Obama just weeks after he took office, when he said: “it is a legitimate constitutional function, and one that promotes the value of transparency, to indicate when a bill that is presented for presidential signature includes provisions that are subject to well-founded constitutional objections.” Contrast that with what Obama had said about signing statements on the campaign trail: “This is part of the whole theory of George Bush that he can make laws as he is going along. I disagree with that. I taught the Constitution for 10 years. I believe in the Constitution and I will obey the Constitution of the United States. We are not going to use signing statements as a way of doing an end run around Congress.”
Not that Obama alone takes criticism for exercising presidential power contrary to the actions of Congress, as he describes the auto industry bailout in the last days of the presidency of George W. Bush. A bill didn’t make it through Congress, but Bush “repurposed” TARP funds — intended for banks — and used them for an auto bailout in the amount of $17.4 billion.
It is this use of executive power and agencies to bypass the will of people — as expressed through Congress — that is detailed in a book authored by Phil Kerpen and published this week: Democracy Denied: How Obama is Ignoring You and Bypassing Congress to Radically Transform America — and How to Stop Him.
Kerpen is Vice President for Policy at Americans for Prosperity, a national group that advocates for free markets and limited government at all levels. His website is philkerpen.com, and it features excerpts from the book along with a theatrical trailer.
Kerpen explains the problem by describing a solution: The Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act, or REINS Act. This proposed law would require any major regulatory action to be approved by Congress and receive the president’s signature. Kerpen writes: “We have regulators who are effectively writing and executing their own laws. The major policy decisions that affect every aspect of our economic lives are moving forward without consent of the people’s legitimately elected legislative branch.”
The problem is that often Congress passes generic laws and leaves it to regulatory agencies to write the rules that implement the law. By requiring Congressional and Presidential approval of major regulations, agencies will be accountable to the current Congress, and lawmakers will have a chance to ensure that actual regulations are consistent with the intent of enabling legislation.
Cap-and-trade energy legislation provides an example of Kerpen’s thesis, which is “how the Obama administration was disregarding Congress and the American people to accomplish its objectives through regulatory backdoors.” The legislation passed the House, but couldn’t pass the Senate. So what happened next? Kerpen explains Obama’s detour around Congress:
Just to show you how unfazed the Obama administration was by the political defeat of cap-and-trade, consider what’s on page 146 of Obama’s 2012 budget: “The administration continues to support greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the United States in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83% percent by 2050.” Those just happen to be the same levels required by the failed Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. Obama is telling the EPA to just pretend that the bill passed and regulate away.
In fact Obama’s EPA was already moving full steam ahead to implement a global warming regulatory scheme that could even be more costly than cap and trade — without the approval of the American people and without so much as a vote in Congress.
The remainder of the chapter details some of the ways EPA is accomplishing this backdoor regulation.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as ObamaCare, is another topic Kerpen covers where regulation is replacing lawmaking by Congress:
Nancy Pelosi was right in more ways then she realized when she infamously said “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.” Not only was the more than 2,000-page bill negotiated in secret and so densely complex that few humans could understand it, it also deferred most of the really difficult and important decisions to the regulators, including dozens of brand-new boards, committees, councils, and working groups. So even after ObamaCare had been passed there was no way to know what was really in it until the bureaucracy was assembled and began issuing regulations.
Kerpen describes the bill that passed as not “finished legislation,” and is now being interpreted by bureaucrats, the most powerful being HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Her office is now, according to Kerpen, “issuing a whole string of official guidelines and regulations that attempt to ‘correct’ the draft law, often by asserting things that the law doesn’t actually say.”
Other chapters describe regulation of the internet (net neutrality), card check, the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, and energy regulation. All of these represent the Obama administration either ignoring Congress or creating vast new powers for itself. The chart Kerpen created shows the plays being made.
What about regulatory reform? Obama’s doing that. In January he wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “We’re looking at the system as a whole to make sure we avoid excessive, inconsistent and redundant regulation. And finally, today I am directing federal agencies to do more to account for — and reduce — the burdens regulations may place on small businesses.”
In a chapter titled “The Back Door to the Back Door: Phony Regulation Reform” Kerpen explains that this promise or regulatory reform by the president is a sham. Kerpen describes the executive order that implements regulatory review this way: “The new executive order is the regulatory parallel to the Obama administration’s strategy on federal spending, which is to spend at astonishing, record rates and rack up trillions of dollars in deficits while paying lip service to fiscal responsibility by establishing a fiscal commission.”
And in a gesture of true public service, Kerpen introduces us to Cass Sunstein, the man who is heading the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), the agency that will be conducting the purported review of regulations. A quote from Sunstein: “In what sense is the money in our pockets and bank accounts fully ‘ours’? Did we earn it by our own autonomous efforts? Could we have inherited it without the assistance of probate courts? Do we save it without the support of bank regulators? Could we spend it if there were no public officials to coordinate the efforts and pool the resources of the community in which we live?”
Kerpen sums up Sunstein’s political philosophy of central planning:
The idea of Sunstein’s “nudge” philosophy is that the fatal conceit of central economic planning can somehow succeed if it is subtly hidden from view. Sunstein thinks that if he imposes regulations that steer our choices instead of outright forcing them, he can achieve desirable social objectives. … Given Suinstein’s views and the central role he will have in reshaping federal regulation to be “more effective,” we need to be deeply concerned that any changes that come out of the process may make regulation less apparent, but no less costly — and more effective at crushing genuine individual choice and responsibility and substituting the judgment (even if by a nudge instead of a shove) of a central planner.
The challenge, Kerpen writes in his conclusion to the book, “is to change the political calculus to elevate regulatory fights to the appropriate level in the public consciousness. We must make sure the American people understand that a disastrously bad idea becomes even worse when it’s implemented by backdoor, unaccountable, illegitimate means.”
Kerpen recommends passage of the REINS Act as a way to restore accountability over regulatory agencies to Congress. The two messages Congress needs, he writes, are: “You can delegate authority, but you can never delegate responsibility,” and “If you fail to stop out-of-control regulators, voters will hold you accountable.”