Last Wednesday, July 16, 2014, the House Rules Committee held a five-hour hearing to consider a draft resolution “providing for authority to initiate litigation for actions by the President inconsistent with his duties under the Constitution of the United States.” It has been decided, although it is unclear whether this decision has yet been formalized in any way, that the potential litigation will focus on the Obama administration’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act, particularly the failure to implement the employer mandate in accordance with the January 1, 2014 effective date set forth in the law.
Notwithstanding some media reports that focused on trivialities (see, for example, Dana Milbank’s snarky and unfair coverage of the hearing as “an amateur hour—or an amateur five hours”), there was a good deal of serious discussion and more agreement than might have been expected on some important points. One point in particular stands out: every witness and member who spoke to the issue seemed to agree that there has been a serious erosion of congressional power in recent decades and that Congress has failed to act in self defense when faced with presidents who seek to aggrandize their power at the expense of the legislative branch.
Not surprisingly, this was most evident from the majority members of the Committee, who repeatedly expressed concern about the increasing power of the executive branch, and the majority’s star witness, Professor Jonathan Turley, who testified that the rise of an “uber-presidency” is causing our constitutional system to change in a “dangerous and destabilizing way.” Turley said the executive branch has “bled away” a lot of congressional authority and argued that the House must “take a stand” to re-establish some degree of constitutional balance.
But these concerns were not limited to the Republican side. For example, when Turley said that the Framers expected that the House would stand up for its institutional prerogatives, Representative Louise Slaughter, the Ranking Member, nodded in agreement. Although Slaughter indicated in no uncertain terms that she would not be supporting the resolution, she also said there were “genuine issues of executive overreach” by “modern presidents,” a category from which she did not exempt the incumbent.
The minority witnesses also acknowledged the problem. Simon Lazarus of the Constitutional Accountability Center recognized the relative decline of Congress with respect to the other two branches as a development that “definitely has occurred” and is “regrettable.” Professor Walter Dellinger, who like Lazarus was called by the minority in opposition to the resolution, also acknowledged that there has in fact been an erosion of congressional power in recent years. At Dellinger’s words, Slaughter and Representative Jim McGovern both nodded in vigorous agreement, with McGovern expostulating “yes, yes” or something to that effect.
There was also a good deal of agreement on the difficulty that the House would face in trying to establish standing to bring such a lawsuit. Although Professor Elizabeth Foley gamely made the case that the courts ought to recognize the House’s standing under the circumstances presented, no one (with the possible exception of Foley herself) appeared to think this was a likely outcome. Turley, for example, acknowledged that the President “has the advantage on standing.” Lazarus suggested that while there was some possibility the courts might recognize the House’s standing, everyone would agree it would be an “uphill climb.” Meanwhile, Slaughter and Dellinger had a field day citing statements by conservatives hostile to legislative standing in general and to this lawsuit in particular. Slaughter, for example, quoted Andrew McCarthy’s description of the lawsuit as “feckless” and his warning that the House’s theory of standing would lead to “vexatious congressional lawsuits.” The Republican members of the committee didn’t so much take issue with these views as argue that they have no other viable options to contain the expansion of executive power.
But is it true that there are no other viable options? To answer that question, we must drill down on the legal issue presented by the extension of the employer mandate. Which I will take up in my next post.