Obama Goes It Alone

The president will use his authority to change rules and regulations in the name of improving lives.

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"The Presidency" column appears in U.S. News Weekly.


Faced with a resistant Congress, President Obama is increasingly using unilateral action by the executive branch to bypass the opposition and get his way.

The administration is already moving ahead with what the Washington Post calls the first major overhaul of the nation's food safety system in more than 70 years. This involves imposing stringent new standards for fruit and vegetable producers and food manufacturers, following up on the Food Safety Modernization Act passed by Congress two years ago. The law gave the Food and Drug Administration many new powers, such as the authority to force companies to recall products as part of an effort to prevent food-borne outbreaks of contamination and disease.

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This is only the start. Obama plans to use the executive branch's authority to change many other rules and issue many other regulations, all in the name of improving people's lives. The Associated Press reports that "since the election, the Obama administration has quietly reopened the regulations pipeline" on issues ranging from workplace safety to "a crackdown on Wall Street." But Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, warns that the administration is about to push the nation over a "regulatory cliff" that will cost jobs and hurt the economy.

The administration already decided to relax visa requirements for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants. The rules change, issued by the Department of Homeland Security last week, would make it easier for many undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States while they apply for permanent residency. This is part of the administration's overall campaign to reform the immigration system.

And the Environmental Protection Agency has just issued a new air pollution regulation governing the use of boilers at manufacturing plants under a program called "Boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology," or MACT. The National Association of Manufacturers complains that this is "a costly and crippling regulation at a time when our economy is on the brink." The NAM says it could cost manufacturers as much as $14 billion. But environmentalists argue that the decision is a good move that will reduce toxic air pollution.

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One of Obama's most far-reaching uses of executive power came last year when he issued a directive making it easier for the children of illegal immigrants who were brought into the United States by their parents to remain here legally. It angered the president's critics but showed how far he was willing to go to bypass a slow-moving Congress.

Also last year, Obama signed a proclamation declaring Fort Monroe, Va., a national monument. The president billed the move as a way to "create jobs and grow the local economy" because of the work required to preserve the 570-acre National Historic Landmark District.

Today, some gun control advocates want the president to use his executive powers to restrict access to firearms as a response to the December 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn. Vice President Biden is in charge of a task force studying the president's options, and some forms of unilateral action are under consideration. The task force is expected to report to Obama by next week. In addition to a proposal to ban the sale of military-style assault weapons, the group is considering recommendations to have the Justice Department prosecute people who lie on background-check forms when purchasing guns, and to improve the gathering of information on people who should be prohibited from buying firearms.

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Clearly, there are winners and losers in every one of these regulatory moves, often with serious consequences for the country.

In some cases, the regulations are mandated by law. In others, Obama is using unilateral action because getting legislation through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is so difficult. This isn't new. Other presidents have done end runs around Congress when faced with legislators who opposed their agendas. But Obama seems intent on using these unilateral powers with particular aggressiveness in the coming months.

All this will cause a stir among those who argue that Obama is meddling too much in the economy and in society. But unilateral action will be one of his major ways of governing for the foreseeable future.

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