What Obama can do despite a GOP-controlled House

John Dimsdale Jan 4, 2011
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What Obama can do despite a GOP-controlled House

John Dimsdale Jan 4, 2011
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Kai Ryssdal: Say what you will about the results of last fall’s election — and people have — but things are about to get a whole lot more interesting in Washington. When the new Congress is sworn in tomorrow, the new Republican members of the House of Representatives are going to give the GOP a majority and a whole lot of power.

One of the first things they’ll do next Wednesday, as things stand now, is vote to repeal the health care law. Meanwhile, the Democrat who lives in that big house down at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue still has some things he wants to get done. So how might that work?

Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale looked into it.


John Dimsdale: Like most presidents, Barack Obama faces an incoming legislature with a mandate to change his direction.

James Thurber, at American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, says the president has an alternative.

James Thurber: It’s like two-dimensional chess. If he gets blocked on the Hill, he can move to the executive branch and have them move on regulations that go in the direction he wants.

Exhibit A for this strategy is the EPA, which is using the 40-year-old Clean Air Act to crack down on greenhouse gas pollution. Republicans say they’ll fight EPA’s plans by cutting the agency’s budget. In the meantime, Thurber says the president holds the upper hand.

Thurber: You know, there are only about 300 laws passed every two years. But there are 25,000 regulations passed every two years. That’s a great deal of power that the president and executive branch have.

And some of the president’s supporters are urging him to use that power. For example, to get around congressional roadblocks on energy, Neera Tanden at the Center for American Progress says the president can create an oil import fee.

Neera Tanden: A small fee on oil imports would actually level the playing field between domestic and international production and would create incentives for a reduction in the use of oil.

Tanden says when Obama had Democratic majorities, of course he worked with Congress.

Tanden: But now I think it also makes sense for him to move into the executive arena and show the American people he’s not a prime minister but he’s really CEO of the government.

But that risks antagonizing Congress, which can cut funding for regulatory agencies.

Andy Laperriere at the International Strategy and Investment Group says better to follow Bill Clinton’s example. He fought a new Republican majority to a standstill in 1995, but worked together to get things done the next year.

Andy Laperriere: They signed the Telecom Act in ’96, they signed welfare reform in ’96. So, the achievements came in the second year, not in the first year.

Besides, Laperriere says, businesses will also push back against government by regulation.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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