Emergency.

Faced with a Republican Congress created by a majority of Republican voters, President Obama resorted to executive orders and administrative regulations to act on climate, immigration, and wages.  None of these initiatives have fared well with the courts.

For example, in February 2016, the Supreme Court issued a stay on President Obama’s regulations on the coal industry as part of his effort to respond to climate change.[1]  For example, in June 2016 the Supreme Court (4-4) upheld a lower court’s rejection of President Obama’s 2014 executive order that would have allowed almost half (5 million) illegal immigrants to escape deportation.[2]

For example, in May 2016, the Obama Administration’s Labor Department issued a regulation on over-time.  Previously, only workers making less than $23,660 a year were eligible for time-and-a-half over 40 hours/week.  Under the Labor Department regulation, anyone making less than $47,500 a week would qualify for overtime.  Businesses assumed that the new regulation would be sustained by the courts, so they began raising pay to the new minimum and by turning full-time workers into hourly workers.  Then, just before Thanksgiving, a federal judge in Texas (of course) blocked a Labor Department regulation on overtime pay.[3]  The Trump Administration is likely to withdraw the regulation.

So, who is in the right here?  Hard to say because a lot of jobs pay very little and require an awful lot.  Anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows that long hours involve constant toil and bullying by idiot supervisors for lousy money.  For that matter, the idiot supervisors themselves put in 60 hours a week or more trying to get to the next level.

On the other hand, one can easily get the feeling that Democrats believe that every business is Microsoft: immense profits from immense profit margins.  In fact, retailers, restaurants, and grocery stores all run in thin profit-margins.  Thus, when Washington, DC, mandated a raise in the minimum wage, Walmart cancelled plans to build two new stores in the district, and Washington restaurants cut employment by 1,400 workers in the first half of 2016.[4]

It seems likely that one part of President Obama’s “legacy” will be a judicial restriction of executive authority.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing from a non-partisan perspective.  American voters often have chosen a divided government.  This is annoying for politicians (Republican as much as Democrats) with agendas they want to push.  The resort to executive orders and regulatory changes does offer a way around this dead-lock.  However, it establishes a pattern of circumventing the Constitution’s division of powers.  Any president can portray anything s/he wants to do as the solution to some “emergency.”

[1] See: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/10/us/politics/supreme-court-blocks-obama-epa-coal-emissions-regulations.html?_r=0

[2] See: http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/23/politics/immigration-supreme-court/

[3] “Issue of the week: Judge halts new overtime rule,” The Week, 9 December 2016, p. 38.

[4] “Proof that wage laws backfire,” The Week, 11 November 2016, p. 12.

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