Week In Politics: Lawsuits, Rulings And The Legacy Of Howard Baker
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And to talk more about the political news this week is E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Hey there, E.J.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
CORNISH: And sitting in for David Brooks is Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and columnist for U.S. News & World Report. Hi there, Mary Kate.
MARY KATE CARY: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So we just heard that assessment in Tamara's piece that odds are against the president in fulfilling anymore big campaign promises in his final two years of office. Well, one way the president has tried to keep his agenda going is through the use of executive orders in the areas of health care and energy, for example. But House Speaker John Boehner is threatening to sue, accusing the president of overreach.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: When there's conflicts like this between the legislative branch and the administrative branch, it's, in my view, our responsibility to stand up for this institution in which we serve.
CORNISH: Mary Kate, I'll start with you. President Obama has responded saying that he's told Boehner, if you're really concerned about me taking too many executive actions, why don't you try getting something done through Congress?
CARY: Well this is a novel idea to have House of Representatives sue the president. What makes this different is it would be the first time that the house would be a plaintiff and could get standing as - in a legal term, to bring a case forward. It would be a last resort measure under the law, but I think if Boehner can get standing, he could really be very successful with this thing. And the reason is, he's tapping into frustration in the house, in the Supreme Court, amongst voters with the vast expansion of federal power. When the president said in the State of the Union Address this year that he was going to go around the heads of Congress and Congress clapped, I was shocked at that as a speechwriter. But he then started this pen-and-phone strategy and that is what is causing all the turmoil in Washington.
CORNISH: E.J., backlash to the pen-and-phone strategy.
DIONNE: Well, I have never seen somebody threatened with a lawsuit be so happy about the threat. The White House people feel this is a wonderful thing. What it really shows is not only does the Republican House not want to pass anything, they want to prevent President Obama from doing anything on all kinds of issues, ranging from the environment to people's economic concerns. And I think Boehner is doing this for entirely tactical reasons. There are a lot of his people on the right who want to launch impeachment of President Obama. And Boehner knows full well that if he wants to turn out a Democratic base that's a little sluggish, all he needs to do is to threaten impeachment against Obama. And so the Obama side raised more money on this - Democrats did - than they - in one day than they have on anything else. So Boehner's trying to keep something worse from happening, from his point of view, politically. And I don't think this is going to go anywhere, but it might help Obama gain some traction.
CORNISH: Mary Kate, you were shaking your head.
CARY: I don't think this is the political stunt that the White House thinks it is. I think this is a move by Boehner to try and get something accomplished in Washington other than by executive order. If the president - I remember my old boss, President H.W. Bush, saying about the 1990 budget deal, this is not the best deal possible but it's the best deal possible with this Congress. And that's that sort of half a loaf is better than no loaf mentality. And that's what I think is missing in the Obama White House, and that's why he's gone to this pen-and-phone strategy. I think there needs to be more of a spirit of crafting bipartisan legislation together.
DIONNE: Good luck with this House, which has rejected that over and over again. But the other thing is Obama has issued fewer executive orders than, I think, all presidents but one in the last 20 or 30 years. So I think the whole notion that Obama is vastly overreaching compared to his predecessors just isn't true.
CORNISH: I want to check in - another check on the president's power. This week the White House was on the losing side of a Supreme Court ruling over recess appointments. That effectively narrowed the president's power to fill top government positions temporarily without the Senate's consent. E.J., the court's four conservatives called the recess appointment power an anachronism, basically saying look, the Senate can be called in at short notice - fair point?
DIONNE: No. This was a decision I wish they had not come to. In the olden-days not all that long ago, the courts were very reluctant to get involved in what they call political questions, which is when the Congress and the president have a fight like this. And there was a kind of incoherence about this decision 'cause the top line you got a 9-0, so it looks unanimous - that they all agreed these appointments were improper. But then beneath the surface, you had a fierce fight about what - how limited the appointment power is. And I was really struck by a piece by Jeff Shesol on the New Yorker's blog where he talked about the decisions and said the court was acting like varsity historians - junior varsity historians, and the founding generation just could not imagine the kind of obstruction that we have seen over the last few years. So I think we're in a novel situation, and I just wish the court hadn't taken this case at all.
CORNISH: Mary Kate Cary, I don't know if anybody would want to set their clock by the Senate schedule.
CORNISH: Let me hear your take on this.
CARY: I think this is bigger than the NLRB and Senate prerogatives. I think this is about separation of powers. This is the 13th unanimous decision by the Supreme Court against the administration in 18 months. The court is clearly sending a signal here. In the past, the White House would usually win about 70 percent of Supreme Court cases that it argued, and the last three terms of the Supreme Court, they've lost a majority of their cases. They are unable to hold even their own Supreme Court nominees' votes because so many of these cases deal with unchecked federal power. And I think that's why this is such a threat to the Obama White House, and I disagree with E.J. I'm glad they brought the case, and I think that we're going to see more of this.
CORNISH: I want to just take a minute, actually, to remember a politician - especially this week - Howard Baker, former Senate Majority Leader and former White House Chief of Staff. He died at age 88. And we heard about his legacy in the Watergate hearing - asking that question, just what did the president know? But what else do you think he should be remembered for, E.J.?
DIONNE: I think this is one Mary Kate and I might actually agree on.
CORNISH: I figured. That's why I thought I'd save it for last.
DIONNE: This was a very nice thing to do. There's a line in David Stout's great New York Times obit, which is actually disturbing about our time. He said of Baker, friendly and unfailingly courteous, he was popular with lawmakers in both parties, a kind of figure almost unrecognizable on Capitol Hill today. And so Baker's death, I think, brought forth a lot of legitimate nostalgia for a certain graciousness. I also liked what his stepmother once said of him. He's like the Tennessee River. He flows right down the middle.
CORNISH: Mary Kate Cary.
CARY: The best one I saw was George Condon quoted Howard Baker saying that the secret to his success, he said, was that he was an eloquent listener. That you don't have to agree with the other side, but you have to hear what they're saying. And I think there's a need for that in Washington right now. As a result, Howard Baker got a lot done. And that's something else we could use in Washington these days.
DIONNE: Amen to that.
CORNISH: Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and columnist for U.S. News & World Report, thank you so much for coming in.
CARY: Thank you.
CORNISH: And E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, thank you.
DIONNE: Thank you.
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