Which one is the broken branch again?

Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Want to Shut Down Obama on Immigration? Here's How

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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There's no evidence that any president, up to and including Barack Obama earlier in his tenure, ever thought that it would be proper to grant legal status to several million illegal immigrants unilaterally. Yet the president appears likely to do so very soon.

If that weren't sufficiently outrageous as a constitutional matter, Obama's stated rationale is worse. He is acting, he says, because Congress has not. It shouldn't need to be explained that the refusal of Congress to pass legislation to the president's liking isn't a breakdown of the system that justifies an extraordinary presidential act.

The judgment that this diktat is improper doesn't depend on the judgment that the policy Obama wants to impose is in itself wrong. I believe that the government should eventually grant legal status to most illegal immigrants -- I'd even be happy to call it an "amnesty" -- after it's clear that immigration laws will be enforced at the border and the workplace going forward.

But I support a lot of policies that I don't think a president has the authority to impose by himself. I'd very much like to see tax reform, for example. That doesn't mean a president should suspend enforcement of the tax laws to pressure Congress to go along.

Republicans aren't sure if there's anything they can do to stop Obama. They don't have the votes to impeach him, and trying to do so would make them look nutty and ineffectual.

Some want to tie a restriction on presidential authority to legislation funding the government. The risk is that the president would veto the legislation, or Senate Democrats would block it, leading to another government shutdown. There is debate among Republicans about how bad this would be. But it's clear that the party's leaders in the House and Senate are afraid of another shutdown, and find it worth their while to advertise their fear far and wide. And even if they were willing to go through a shutdown and it did them no political harm, it probably wouldn't keep the president from getting his way.

There could be a way out of this for Republicans. First, they should remember that in a democracy, even one that's not working the way it should, argument and denunciation are never the same thing as "doing nothing." Elected officials who disagree strongly with the president's action should criticize it and try to make the president and his allies pay a political price for it.

But there may be more they can do. Why not try to pass a funding bill that pays for all of the operations of the federal government except for Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in the Homeland Security Department that would carry out Obama's order? They could then try to pass another bill that just funds that agency -- but with a restriction saying no money can be used for the president's amnesty.

What would the Democrats do then? If they block a big funding bill that has nothing to do with immigration over the issue, it becomes hard to deny that they're the ones shutting down the government to get their way. If they don't block it, they'll have no government shutdown to complain about -- and the parties could move on to a more narrowly focused fight about the immigration budget. In that fight, Republicans would be holding a relatively strong hand: They would have funded the government, inconvenienced very few voters and gotten some real leverage.

This strategy might not succeed. But it has a signal advantage over the alternative ways of registering opposition to the president's extra-constitutional action: It isn't guaranteed to fail.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net