President Obama announced sweeping new executive orders on gun regulations Tuesday at the White House. Within moments of those remarks, Republican Congressional offices issued press statements criticizing Obama’s unilateral moves to tighten gun restrictions.
Left out of any Republican statements, however, was any promise to cut funding for Obama’s actions. No matter what the White House may propose, Congress still exercises the power of the purse.
Typical of Republican statements was a press release sent out by Rep. Tom Price (R-GA). Price said:
[T]he president is acting with a complete disregard for the Constitutional limits of his own authority. This is not a responsible or an effective means at protecting the safety and security of the American people. The Obama Administration should focus on the job of the Executive Branch which is to enforce the laws of the land, not rewrite them.
This isn’t to single out Price, as his sentiments were widely shared by a number of Republican offices issuing reactions to Obama’s directives. Price, however, is Chair of the House Budget Committee, which exercises broad authority over how the federal government spends tax dollars.
While the House Budget Committee doesn’t actually appropriate tax dollars, it does set overall parameters for how the government spends money. What is noteworthy about Price’s statement isn’t what he said, but rather what he didn’t say.
Price noted that President Obama’s actions went beyond his executive constitutional authority. He did not, however, promise to block the federal government from spending money to pursue Obama’s directives.
Presidents often try to push constitutional boundaries to assert more rights than they actually possess. The ultimate arbiter, however, is Congress, which controls how virtually every federal dollar is spent. Any President’s directive is just a piece of paper, unless Congress appropriates the money to enforce that directive.
This is especially true when that directive runs counter to existing federal law. A President may reallocate money within the executive branch to enforce existing law but is limited in what he can spend for regulations that are created out of executive cloth.
It is possible that Republicans in Congress are simply biding their time, allowing President Obama to savor his media spotlight before they begin the heavy lifting of defunding his new gun directives. In one respect, Obama’s new directives were much less than what the White House had previewed.
That said, a constitutional power grab is not allowable in degrees. Even if the new regulations announced by President Obama were less than gun rights supporters feared, they still represent an extra-consitutional assertion of executive rights.
As a matter of principle, if nothing else, Republicans in Congress should prepare legislation stripping the executive branch from any funding to pursue or enforce Obama’s new directives. If past is prologue, however, Republicans in Congress are unlikely to take any action at all, beyond a few sternly worded press releases.
In at least the past several years, President Obama has made a habit of pushing his executive powers further than those envisioned by the founders. His Administration has publicly announced which provisions of ObamaCare it will enforce and which it will ignore. Just weeks ago, the Obama Administration said it would ignore new visa restrictions contained in the omnibus spending bill because of opposition to the new provisions from Iran.
The Obama Administration has pushed environmental regulations even after courts have ruled against them. It has effectively rewritten the nation’s immigration laws, pursuing a defacto “amnesty” for certain groups of illegal immigrants.
This last overreach by the White House even drew rebukes from Republicans on the campaign trail in 2014. Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate and House vowed to undo Obama’s executive orders on immigration if voters elected them. The voters did, but the Republicans took no action.
The omnibus spending bill recently shepharded through Congress by GOP Speaker Paul Ryan and GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell provided funding for all executive orders issued by President Obama. It even continued funding for a number of regulations and provisions that had already been rejected by federal courts.
Given this record of GOP acquiescence, it is unsurprising that President Obama felt empowered to expand his executive authority to the issue of gun rights. The White House and few in Washington expect the Republicans to move to block the new regulations.
In the end, the White House announcement on Tuesday, and reactions from Capitol Hill, were just part of Washington’s political theater. Although President Obama justified his new orders on recent mass shootings, none of the measures he outlined would have prevented any of those tragedies.
Just as the Republican press releases criticizing the new directives won’t do anything to prevent their enforcement. Republicans do possess every power necessary to block Obama’s gun grab except one: political courage.