Democratic Hopefuls Vow to Plow Past Gridlocked Congress to Keep Promises
(Bloomberg) -- Many of the Democrats running for president are vowing to use executive action to deliver on campaign promises from gun control to raising the minimum wage, breaking with a tradition of paying lip-service to bipartisanship on the stump.
Commitments to unilateral action have become a go-to campaign tool this year in response to a political landscape where congressional gridlock and GOP threats to thwart Democratic proposals have all but ended any hope of bipartisan cooperation on contentious issues.
“There’s a lot a president can do herself -- it just takes having the courage, the ideas, and the team in place to do it,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has promised to use executive authority to halt new oil drilling leases offshore and on public land.
Although presidents have routinely relied on executive authority to advance policy goals once in office, the emphasis at this early stage of the campaign “is new and it reflects the changed context of American politics,” said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. The promises, he said, are “intended to signal the unswerving determination to get the job done one way or another.”
List of Plans
Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who was runner-up for the Democratic nomination in 2016, says he’d halt deportations for undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least five years, set a $15 minimum wage for federal contractors and bar corporations that outsource U.S. jobs from obtaining government contracts.
Senator Kamala Harris says she would give Congress 100 days to act on her proposal to toughen firearms laws for private sales and domestic abusers. “And if they fail to do it, then I will take executive action,” she said at a CNN town hall in New Hampshire two weeks ago.
And Beto O’Rourke recently published a detailed policy blueprint on climate change, which includes executive actions to bolster clean energy and zero out fossil fuel extraction on public lands by 2030.
Of the top-tier candidates, only the front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, has yet to roll out policy proposals or promises of unilateral action. Instead, he has taken an optimistic approach, presenting himself as a president who could overcome partisanship. If Republicans “become part of a coalition that can win on important things, they will begin to vote their conscience,” he said at a fund-raiser in Brentwood, California, on Wednesday.
Biden’s quest for the nomination hinges on a bet that his vision of reviving bipartisanship will win out against progressives who consider it naïve and instead say Democrats must fight the GOP to get things done.
Galston, who has worked on presidential campaigns since 1980, mostly for Democratic candidates, said he couldn’t recall an election with such a “sustained emphasis on executive actions as opposed to ordinary presidential leadership and legislation.”
Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, said candidates are responding to advocates’ demand for results, not excuses. “Activists in both parties have great expectations about assertive moves to get things done,” he said. “Audiences at campaign rallies don’t cheer talk of constitutional prudence and regular order.”
Some of the focus on these actions is a tacit acknowledgment of the difficulty Democrats will face in picking up the three seats they would need to capture the Senate majority from Republicans in 2020. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has threatened to be the “grim reaper” for many of the Democrats’ proposals if he remains in charge in 2021. Medicare for All and a Green New Deal are “going nowhere in the Senate” if it’s up to him, he said Tuesday in a Fox News interview.
Pitney said Senate Democrats will either stay in the minority or win a narrow majority, making it difficult to meet the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome filibusters. “Although certain kinds of legislation can still advance under divided government, it’s unlikely that Congress would pass the kinds of bills that the activists care about. Hence, talk of executive action,” he said. “James Madison would not be amused.”
Executive actions have been frequent targets of criticism by both parties and have faced lawsuits.
Democrats, for example, are fighting several of President Donald Trump’s uses of executive authority, most notably his attempt to end-run Congress to fund a border wall by declaring a national emergency. Facing Republican resistance to his own plans on immigration and the environment, President Barack Obama turned to executive action, declaring that “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.”
In the past, presidents have characterized executive actions as a last resort when all other options had been exhausted. Galston warned that over-promising carries risk.
“Candidates are going to have to be very careful because there are limits to executive action,” Galston said. “Many will be tempted, in this competitive bidding process, to make promises about what will be done through executive action that are not very realistic.”
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