President Obama’s illegal executive actions concerning the Affordable Care Act, education and immigration have inflicted irreparable damage to the rule of law. But his disregard of the Constitution has an even more troubling implication for today’s youth.
A generation ago, ABC-TV’s animated “Schoolhouse Rock!” taught children that the law is changed when the legislature and president agree.
Today, Professor Obama teaches a different lesson: When Congress refuses to enact my agenda, I will use my pen and phone to bypass them.
As today’s students become tomorrow’s leaders, the role of civic education becomes all the more critical to ensure that the checks and balances continue to prevail over the pen and phone.
In June 2014, after the House of Representatives announced it would not vote on comprehensive immigration reform — the so-called “Gang of Eight” bill — President Obama declared that he would act anyway.
“I take executive action only when we have a serious problem, a serious issue, and Congress chooses to do nothing,” he said. The president promised to “fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own, without Congress.”
Five months later, after the midterm election, the president announced his executive action on immigration known as DAPA (“Deferred Action for Parents of Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents”). The policy would have halted the deportations of 4 million unlawfully present aliens and provided them with work authorization.
These were the exact people the Gang of Eight bill would have benefited. The president’s action was a naked effort to work around a Congress that did not agree with his agenda.
Texas and two dozen other states challenged DAPA in court. In early 2015, a federal judge ruled that the policy was illegal and put it on hold.
The federal government appealed the case to the Supreme Court, but due to the tragic passing of Justice Antonin Scalia, the short-handed bench divided 4-4. Currently, the case is still pending, and will likely be resolved based on which president appoints the ninth Supreme Court justice.
When the president takes actions such as DAPA, we should think not only of how it impacts the rule of law in the abstract, but also what lesson it teaches today’s youth.
The Obama approach to governance was crystalized in a Saturday Night Live parody of the “Schoolhouse Rock!” classic, titled “How a bill does not become a law.”
A character dressed as a bill stands on the steps of Capitol Hill and explains to a young boy how he would become a law. “Well, first I go to the House and they vote on me. But then I need from the Senate a majority. And if I pass the legislative test, then I wind up on the president’s desk.”
President Obama appears and shoves the bill down the steps. The boy shouts, “President Obama, what’s the big idea? That bill was trying to become a law.” The smirking president tells the boy, “There’s actually an even easier way to get things done around here, and it’s called an executive order.”
Another character, dressed as an executive order, appears. “I’m an executive order,” he sings, “and I pretty much just happen.” The boy asks, “Don’t you have to go through Congress at some point?” The executive order, cigarette in hand, dismisses the boy. “Oh, that’s adorable, you still think that’s how government works.”
The bill, gasping for air, climbs back up the steps and sings, “We look at the midterm elections, and people clearly don’t want this” executive order. “We’re going to take you to court, and we’re going to shut down Congress.”
Mr. Obama shoves the bill down the steps one last time.
The president, himself a former constitutional law lecturer, should be far more careful when he brazenly teaches students across the country that the separation of powers can be ignored when the ends justify the means. Long after DAPA is gone, this tragic lesson will linger in the hearts and minds of our citizenry, and our republic will be worse off for it.
• Josh Blackman is a constitutional law professor at the Houston College of Law and author of “Unraveled: Obamacare, Religious Liberty, and Executive Power.” He is also president of the Harlan Institute (https://harlaninstitute.org/).
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