On Jan. 4 a news release arrived at my office that was expected: “Attached for release and signed by the President today is the text of a memorandum to the Secretary of Defense, Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security on Promoting Smart Gun Technology.”
It was the formal White House announcement of the planned action by President Obama, in the absence of congressional action, to do something about gun violence with expanded background checks, increased enforcement of existing laws, and more gun safety research.
It was a few minutes after six in the evening when that release arrived. Not until the next morning did Republican U.S. Sen. candidate Joe Heck’s response arrive: “Reducing gun violence is critical to keeping our communities safe and secure. But by once again implementing unilateral actions rather than work with Congress, the president has only further polarized the country and reduced the change of any meaningful solutions to address this issue.”
From Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto came this: “Background checks are a common sense proposal to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. I would have preferred for Congress to pass bipartisan background checks legislation. But instead, Congress continues to let partisanship, dysfunction, and gridlock win out over common sense proposals to save lives.”
Then another day passed and another precinct was heard from – Priorities Nevada, an outfit that believes in unrestrained use of the language. The heading of its release set the tone: “Cortez Masto Supports President Obama’s Tyrannical Overreach on Second Amendment Restrictions.” Why is it that partisans on both sides cannot get it through their heads that overstatement backfires, driving the undecided to the other side?
Anyway, this is the latest in a series of actions the president has taken while Congress stares at the ceiling, doing its best to make sure Obama is a failed president. Previous presidential actions independent of Congress dealt with energy and immigration.
For more than 40 years, Democrats have been cautious about allowing presidential power to grow. In Vietnam, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson took the nation to war with little involvement by Congress. Republican President Richard Nixon repeatedly ignored laws enacted by Congress, using the pocket veto in a manner no other president had, dismantling an agency Congress had created, undercutting the functioning of programs by illegally impounding funds, refusing to distribute a pay raise to federal workers.
The imperial presidency became such a threat to governance that at one point Sen. Edward Kennedy sued the Nixon administration to force it to follow the law (Kennedy vs. Sampson, 1973). In this and other court cases, the courts usually overruled Nixon. But there was no remedy for an undeclared war. The courts were loath to step into that delicate thicket, though U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas once ordered an end to the war in an unsuccessful effort to force his fellow justices to act.
Yet with that history, the Democrats are now reinstalling the imperial authority of the president. Nothing in this Republican Congress is so distasteful to the GOP as governing, and the infuriating behavior of Republican leaders is forcing the Democrats to use this hazardous technique. Two conservative scholars, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, have chronicled how it is not the Democrats but the Republicans who have essentially brought governance to a halt.
“Sadly, divided party government, which we have because of the Republican House, in a time of extreme partisan polarization, is a formula for inaction and absolutist opposition politics, not for problem solving,” Mann said two years ago.
The Democrats are playing with a dangerous and volatile medicine. Obama’s use of uncontrolled, unaccountable executive power to force the government to function can be used as precedent by presidents to come, and be done far less responsibly. So far, Obama’s actions have been mostly minor. His orders on guns, for instance, were negligible and of little import. The National Rifle Association is hardly trembling. But having once established a precept, there is no way to control how it will be used 40 years from now. Short term gains could become long term dangers.
It’s easy to see how the maddening conduct of the GOP is driving the Democrats to this, but this is our democracy the two political parties are playing with.
Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.