President Barack Obama has relied on, and expanded, the power of the administrative state by making substantial use of both executive orders and presidential memoranda to achieve policy objectives. Executive orders are appealing to any president because they can be quietly and quickly implemented without hearings, votes or substantive public feedback. President Obama has been direct in favoring this approach, stating, “We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need. I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone.”
The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) ramped up its litigation in response to the tsunami of regulations coming out of the White House. In this final year of the president’s term, the regulatory spigot has only been turned up. The NAM is currently suing the federal government in 16 cases for overregulation.
The Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action has argued in the courts that the president overstepped his constitutional power in issuing many memoranda and executive orders affecting labor and environmental law. However, a presidential legacy implemented by the pen can be destroyed by the pen. First, an executive order can be revoked by another executive order, and it is common for presidents to revoke some of their predecessors’ executive orders. Second, Congress can revoke an executive order through legislation. Third, an executive order can be revoked by a federal appeals court or the Supreme Court.
This year’s election will have a profound impact on future NAM litigation efforts to limit executive overregulation through the courts. President-elect Donald Trump will fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and potentially two or more additional seats as justices retire. If multiple vacancies occur, the Supreme Court will shift from its previous makeup of five conservative and four liberal justices that shaped some of the nation’s most significant issues on social norms, individual rights, the balance of government powers and business and workplace matters. Several, if not all, of the cases in which the NAM is suing the government for executive overreach may end up in a newly configured Supreme Court, and the outcome of President Obama’s regulatory legacy will largely rest on the Supreme Court nominees of President-elect Trump.
The Supreme Court has not had a liberal majority since the retirement of Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1969, and during the past 48-year period, the Supreme Court has made a modest shift to curtail executive overreach. Without a majority conservative Supreme Court, many pro-business decisions on labor and environmental issues would likely not have been rendered. It is generally thought that President-elect Trump will support Supreme Court nominees who believe the Founders’ words in the Constitution mean what they say, not that the Constitution should be seen as a living document. Justices in this mold will likely not support broad deference to executive authority and agency actions. The issues at stake range from the ability of citizens to challenge regulations by administrative fiat to the ability of workers to unionize.
The morning after the election brought with it discussion of whether Democrats will filibuster the Trump administration’s Supreme Court nominees. The Senate confirmation process will offer a critical view into the Supreme Court’s future and the legacy of President Obama’s executive orders.