Congressional Republicans are between a rock and a hard place this week. They are forced to choose between pitching a battle with Democrats over funding President Obama’s immigration executive action or permitting his controversial order to stand. Many in the party are opposed to the president’s order, but are worried about the political ramifications of letting the Department of Homeland Security shut down. Whatever happens, the Republicans are almost guaranteed to appear weak and ineffective.
Last fall, the president issued an executive action that uses the president’s prosecutorial discretion to stop prosecutions for illegal immigrants, effectively nullifying a federal law by refusing to enforce it. The president also expanded eligibility for work visas. These actions pose a serious threat to our system of government. The president should not be stretching a provision of federal law so far that he is effectively rewriting it. Permitting this power to reside with the chief executive creates a dangerous precedent that will only serve to increase the power of the Presidency and decrease the power of Congress. Congress has a duty to oppose these attempts to aggrandize presidential power. The security of our republican system requires other branches of government to check actions that exceed the limits of legitimate authority. At the very least, Congress has a duty to write clearer statutes that cannot be easily twisted and bent to serve an ambitious president’s wishes.
The problem, however, is the political reality. Cutting funding for the president’s executive action will lead to a funding battle with Democrats. Congressional Democrats will refuse to pass any bill that does not fund the president’s executive action. If the Republicans insist on denying funding for the action and the Democrats insist on funding it, the stalemate will result in the shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security. Conservative Republicans will likely argue that Democrats would be to blame in that case for insisting on funding the president’s executive action of dubious legality. Unfortunately, as Republican leaders Senator Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner recognize, the American public might not see it that way.
Congressional Republicans have been embroiled in far too many losing battles with Democrats in the past few years. They have picked a number of fights over raising the debt ceiling, frequently insisting on spending cuts as a condition for their vote to raise the ceiling. The Republicans were forced, under political pressure, to raise the debt ceiling without their desired spending cuts. In fall 2013, Republicans insisted on defunding Obamacare, a move Congressional Democrats predictably opposed, causing a government shutdown. Republicans again were forced to cave and funded the government, including Obamacare.
The Republicans have failed to play politics in a successful or realistic way. They have insisted on picking battles they could not win, making the party look foolish when they were forced to cave to the Democrats. Congressional Republicans must learn to only pick battles they can win and use the interim to build their political capital and respectability. Their history of losing legislative fights with Democrats has made the party appear weak and foolish. Their public reputation has been severely damaged among moderate Americans in the past few years. Now, when they want to pitch a spending fight over the president’s executive action, their reputation precedes them. They are like the boy who cried wolf, earning the frustration of the American public each time they initiated a losing battle. Now there appears to be a real wolf in the president’s action, but the American public is unlikely to believe there is anything worth fighting for in this case based on the party’s sorry history. It seems as though this spending fight would simply play into the Democrats’ hands. The public would not blame the Democrats for supporting a presidential power grab, but would likely blame Republicans for continuing their history of being excessively obstructionist.
The Republicans have few good options in this case. The American people are unconcerned with questions of government structure. They are, in general, not interested in making sure the proper separation and balance of powers is maintained. The lack of support on this count combined with the Republicans’ poor reputation makes a spending fight unlikely to be in the party’s interest. The Republicans must discover a politically effective way to counter cases of executive overreach in order to rebuild the party’s reputation and counter the politically savvy Democrats.