How Obama Can Still Accomplish a Huge Amount—by Sidestepping Congress

President Obama doesn’t need to let Congress get in the way of everything he wants to do.

Photo by Jack Kurtz/Getty Images.

Health care reform, the marquee legislative accomplishment of the Obama administration’s first term. was passed before we entered the world of divided government. Today, Republican control of the House makes any transformational law exceedingly unlikely. Progress that requires both House and Senate approval is likely to be incremental and driven by unusual political circumstances—for example, the current imperative that Republicans agree to some form of immigration reform, lest they truly morph into a party of only angry white men, or the obligation to compromise on fiscal issues before the austerity bomb detonates on Jan. 1. 

The reality of split government puts a premium on creativity within the administration. President Obama needs to put the right people in charge of the agencies and then have them push the bounds of administrative power to change policy through those agencies.

President Obama has a pretty good track record of this. Some of the administration’s most important first-term accomplishments were administrative or rhetorical: the decision not to deport teenagers, support for same sex marriage, and tougher auto-efficiency standards.

Administrative power should not be underestimated. All you need is the right people and the willingness to take a few risks. And here, with a hat tip to Timothy Noah, who wrote a superb piece for the New Republic focusing on this, are some places where Obama can act without Congress:

On climate change: Use the EPA’s power to apply to existing power plants, over time, tough standards on carbon emissions.Also, cancel the Keystone pipeline.

On immigration: Expand the waiver program that now applies only to kids. There are categories of adults who are almost as sympathetic and who should be spared deportation.

On finance: Get the SEC and the other federal agencies to push their rule-making to ensure that finally we give mortgage relief to homeowners whose mortgages exceed the value of their homes. This would undo the harm done by Edward DeMarco, who for years has been able to resist this.

On gun control: Use the government’s leverage as the largest purchaser of guns to get gun companies to voluntarily put common-sense limits on the sale of multibullet magazines and semi-automatics.

There is much that can be done even with a Republican house. President Obama should go for it.