Weaponizing Obama Derangement Syndrome

Greg Sargent reiterates the dismal conservative calculus weighing down immigration reform in the House of Representatives. “The problem here is not Obama; it’s Republicans. House Republicans are not willing to figure out if there is any set of conditions and terms un[d]er which they can support some form of legal status for the 11 million. [. . .] All the talk about ‘not trusting Obama’ is just a smoke-screen designed to obscure these basics.”

House Republicans have maintained that they don’t trust Obama to enforce any immigration reform that they pass, therefore no reform can be passed. Senator Chuck Schumer quickly called their bluff by proposing that any immigration reform passed today not take effect until after Obama leaves office, exposing the distrust issue for the smoke-screen that it is.

But it may be this exact distrust that could breathe some life into immigration reform in the House. If Republicans truly believe that the president will go it alone and take unitary executive action, then maybe this would propel them to make a serious effort at legislative immigration reform. Obama Derangement Syndrome could jolt Congress out of gridlock.

Obama Derangement Syndrome has many strains and symptoms, but the relevant ailment here is the ardent psychological belief among many conservatives that the president cannot be trusted to enforce the law. They point to regulatory actions that the president has taken to delay Obamacare implementation; to slow the rate of deportations; to regulate pollution; and to stop defending the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act in court. To conservatives, these acts of executive discretion show a blatant disregard for the letter of the law that comes out of Congress.

This distrust of a go-it-alone executive then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because Congress cannot pass legislation, the president must pursue executive action to fill the vacuum of basic governance. Because Congress is severely broken on the issue of health care, the president has had to rely on questionable legal interpretations to fix parts of Obamacare and delay the troublesome employer mandate. Because Congress won’t act on climate change, it has fallen on the Environmental Protection Agency to take regulatory action against greenhouse gases.

But heightening Obama Derangement Syndrome – bolstering the conservative fear of unitary executive action – may be exactly what would prod the House to move on immigration reform. Republican Representative Mario Diaz-Balart told the Washington Post, “I’m convinced that if we don’t get it done by the August break, the president, who is feeling a lot of pressure from having not done anything on immigration reform, will feel that he has to act through executive action.”

This changes the calculus for Republicans on immigration reform. Before, the consequence of inaction was just a continuation of the broken status quo system that many congressional Republicans aren’t particularly troubled by. Now, however, in the face of an emboldened executive, the consequence of legislative inaction may be a regulatory solution that is both liberal and crafted without congressional input.

This could be a tremendously useful negotiating chip for the president. And it’s not an empty threat, either. Regulatory agencies get the benefit of the doubt when they stretch the bounds of the law, so long as their interpretation of the statute is reasonable. (This is so-called Chevron deference in legal jargon.) This insulates many agency actions from legal challenges, giving the president a powerful tool as an end-run around Congress to achieve policy goals.

Congress has been stuck in paralysis since 2010. Driven by split party control, political polarization, and perverse Republican incentives pointing toward obstruction as a path to power, the legislative process has ground to a halt. But what might compel obstinate Republicans to actually legislate is fear of a unitary president. So while liberals intuitively scoff at breathless accusations that the president flouts the law, perhaps they ought to be fueling the conspiracy. For when it comes to the gridlock-inducing effects of Obama Derangement Syndrome, the disease might be the cure.

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