The President’s Last Push

As immigration reform is effectively postponed until next year, I wanted to take time and examine the actions of the President so far and possible options for pushing immigration reform through Congress. President Obama promised to place immigration reform on his political agenda during his presidential re-election campaign and promised a few weeks back to get immigration reform passed before the end of the year. But how much control does the President have over the creation of reform?

Currently, the President has been focusing on smaller changes to immigration policy. Last Friday, President Obama issued a nine page memorandum to allow some of the country’s illegal citizens with relatives in the U.S. military to stay in the United States. The order also allows those illegal family members to apply for citizenship in the U.S. This change is said to positively affect thousands of military families who worry about the legal status of their families. In late August, issued a similar presidential memorandum to prevent the deportation of illegal citizens who were the parents of minor children. Presidential memoranda and executive orders are powerful presidential tools for Obama because he change the way government rules are followed and does not have to appeal for legislative approval. This is one method President Obama can use to reshape our current policies on immigration before the end of the year.

However, executive orders and memoranda only allow the president to make changes to how current law is implemented and followed. Unfortunately, these means do not allow the president to create new immigration reform. This is a huge limitation for President Obama as he continues to persuade a gridlocked Congress to create immigration reform. As we stated in class, the president’s power of persuasion can lead to bargaining between the branches of government and the creation of bipartisan policy. However, the willingness of the House to bargain with the Senate and the President has dramatically decreased since the government shutdown crisis. House Speaker John Boehner has recently stated that the House would not go to a formal conference over a comprehensive reform bill endorsed by the President and the Senate. Many Republicans legislators have found it more political appealing to focus on the failure to successfully implement healthcare reform than to vote on a comprehensive reform approach. Some other legislators like Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, have stated that the President’s use of memoranda to make changes in immigration policy have “poisoned the debate”. In this political environment, it is clear that political conditions will not allow President Obama to have an advantage over Congress. Therefore, he will have little ability to affect policymaking in Congress.

So where does President Obama go from here? As we learned from Richard Neustadt’s book Presidential Power (1960), the president’s influence over policymaking is “weak”. I believe there is little the President can do to bridge the congressional divide between the House and the Senate. The best avenue for any new immigration reform this year might be through memoranda and executive orders.

-Arthur Townsend


11 responses to “The President’s Last Push”

  1. Chris Gibson says :

    I agree; with Obama using all of his congressional and public political capital trying to defuse the health care debacle, he has little room to bully his way to immigration reform. It looks like we’ll have to either wait for the health care problem to be fixed or Congress to bring it up on their own, which seems like it could happen early next year. For now, though, I suppose we’ll have to make do with small (but of course meaningful for the people they affect) Presidential actions.

  2. marissajoyp says :

    As we’ve seen, President Obama is clearly struggling to bridge the congressional divide on a lot of issues. But I do think that issuing memorandums and executive orders is a really effective way to make immigration changes. Since the executive branch is in charge of implementing the policies on illegal immigration, the President can effectively decide which ones he wants to pursue, and which ones he does not. With issues like immigration and education being pushed to the bottom of the agenda in the face of healthcare and the economy, it seems that the quasi-legislative methods of the executive branch may be where we see the most happening on these sorts of issues.

  3. Kate says :

    Executive orders are an interesting part of the dynamic between the executive and the legislature. President Obama has made some major changes in how USCIS, DHS, etc. handle undocumented immigrants in the US. For example, DACA, the program that allows young people who were brought here illegally as children to get temporary social security numbers has allowed many “DREAMers” to gain employment and access to education. But these measures are obviously contingent on the President and by 2016 such protections could be gone. Another major draw back is that it alienates those in Congress who disagree, making them less likely to cooperate with the President’s agenda.

  4. caelegislativeblog says :

    Thanks for bringing up this point Arthur! The fact that these EO’s and memoranda do affect certain populations actually help improve presidential approval ratings. Because of this, it may be possible that Pres approval goes up, approval of Congress goes down, and with an election year, this may give the president more sway to push something through. – Erica

    • legiprocess says :

      I think that Erica brings up a very good point. Immigration reform is a very controversial issue and any reform that occurs is more likely to reflect well on Democrats because minorities are usually supporters of the Democrats. Thus, Republicans have less incentive to give the immigration debate any meaningful discussion because it is not a top priority of their constituents. Knowing this, Obama and the Democrats would benefit from Obama’s use of executive orders and memoranda to make the approval of the Republican controlled House go down while reflecting favorably on the Democratic president.

    • caelegislativeblog says :

      I never thought of that possibility. Thanks for point it out Erica. If the president can strategically utilize his executive authority then it may reflect well with the public and boost the president’s ability to influence Congress. However, he will face challenges in doing so because every action he takes is heavily scrutinized by Republicans and the failed healthcare roll out has forced the President to bear the blunt of public and legislative negativity. Both of these conditions are impediments to the President’s ability to influence policy and control bargaining.

      –Arthur Townsend

  5. Jane L. says :

    This seems to be an example of the President’s failure to use positive agenda control for immigration reform because he has exhausted his influence on healthcare reform. While a President is sometimes able to utilize his public support to influence legislation by going to the media and expressing his concerns and opinions to motivate action in Congress, he may be unable to do so because he either has too little public support for it to be helpful, or because his previous calls for action have diluted the attention given. Or perhaps he is saving his energy for other major legislation that he deems more important, and he is therefore satisfied with the smaller changes to immigration reform available through his presidential memoranda.

    • caelegislativeblog says :

      I think you bring up some great points. I think the last option is more than likely the case. By making small changes, the President puts himself at less risk to be attacked by Republicans who will draw the public eye Obama’s tactics and will further poison the already ailing atmosphere that hangs over Congress. I think the President’s best bet is to use his EOs and presidential memoranda wisely, now and in the future.

      –Arthur Townsend

  6. legprocess says :

    As immigration and other important issues like education continue to be pushed to the back of the agenda for more “immediate” topics like healthcare and the economy, I have to wonder if Congress is doing so on purpose. Could it be that they are waiting for the results of the 2014 election, where with the election of new members of Congress, and with diminished levels of gridlock? If anything, I think this would hurt the Republicans more than the Democrats–because after the shutdown debacle (the GOP’s fault) there might be major difficulties in re-election campaigns, allowing for a Democratic majority House, and an easier path to achieve immigration reform.

  7. Brian N. says :

    Sadly, I cannot see this issue being legislated on anytime soon, short of one party control of the government. However, I do think that the president actually has a decent amount of control over the situation – its just that a lot of what he could do might fall into a legally gray area. If things continue to get worse and more deadlocked, I wonder how far Obama is willing to push his executive power

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