After two years of carping about President Obama ramming his ambitious and costly proposals through Congress, some on the right now fume that he is determined to get his way by using— the nerve!—his executive powers.
Charles Krauthammer’s latest column, on this very subject, contains a curious omission, almost a sense of amnesia. The esteemed scribe details how the Obama administration is pushing through three important changes in federal policy, accusing the president of trying “to impose a liberal agenda on a center-right nation” through “ regulatory stealth.”
The examples, such as the Environmental Protection Agency drawing up carbon regulations for oil refineries and power plants, set to take effect this month, are certainly fair game. And while a Medicare rule providing for end-of-life counseling during annual “wellness” visits hardly strikes me as reviving the fiction of death panels, Krauthammer cites a New York Times story in which the provision’s chief Democratic backer, Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, urged supporters by email to “ not broadcast this accomplishment.”
But here’s the thing: Every president uses the federal bureaucracy to push the country in his preferred ideological direction. That, in fact, is part of what elections are about. Each White House occupant appoints agency chiefs who agree with his philosophy—often industry executives in Republican administrations and industry critics in Democratic ones. The Krauthammer column implies that Obama practically invented the nefarious practice.
Take, for example, George W. Bush.
His EPA moved to loosen clean-air rules near national parks.
His Interior Department cleared the way for oil drilling on 130,000 acres of pristine federal land near national parks in Utah (which Obama has since reversed) and moved to allow people to carry concealed, loaded guns in national parks and wildlife refuges.
His Minerals Management Service, which referred to oil companies as “clients,” told the firms they did not have to provide detailed response plans for blowouts because such plans were “purely speculative or generic.” This was five years before the BP oil disaster.
Every president uses the federal bureaucracy to push the country in his preferred ideological direction. That, in fact, is part of what elections are about.
His White House Council on Environmental Quality edited an administration report to emphasize scientific uncertainties about global warming.
His Securities & Exchange Commission mounted 87 percent fewer fraud investigations that led to federal prosecutions, bungled its probe of Bernie Madoff and so badly botched its monitoring of Bear Stearns that the chairman, deregulation enthusiast Christopher Cox, apologetically conceded that “voluntary regulation does not work.”
These and many other policies by Washington’s alphabet soup of agencies made clear that it is usually impossible to separate an administration’s politics from its approach to regulation. Bush’s decision to limit stem-cell research to a small number of existing cell lines—a ban thrown out by Obama—reflected his views on morality and abortion as much as science. Bush’s decisions in these areas may have been fabulous or flawed, depending on your point of view. But his approach to the role of government was markedly different from that of Bill Clinton, whose philosophy, in turn, was a dramatic departure from the “government is the problem” philosophy of Ronald Reagan. That’s why every modern president has tried to push through a batch of “midnight regulations” in the waning weeks of his term—Bush weakened the Endangered Species Act and boosted to 14 hours the time that truckers can work without a break—while each incoming president is quick to undo some of his predecessor’s handiwork.
Obama may well be engaged in a “leftward lurch” toward stricter federal regulation, as the conservative Krauthammer views it. But when it comes to using the Executive Branch to achieve political goals, he’s had plenty of company.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.