In reaction to the hallmark elections of 1994, and the so-called Republican Revolution, President Bill Clinton said that the era of big government was over. I happened to be one of the 74 Republican freshmen who came to Congress at that time when Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Much to the credit of President Clinton, he looked for areas of agreement rather than disagreement as he read the tea leaves from that election. As a consequence, landmark welfare reform was passed and our federal government saw its only balanced budgets in the last 50 years.
For whatever the reason, President Barack Obama has decided to read the tea leaves of this hallmark election in just the opposite way. Though there was a similar turnover and change with regard to legislative leadership in the Congress, and a big class of new Republican freshmen who represent American sentiment for a change of course, he has chosen to pick the issue that most divides Republicans and Democrats in Washington and act unilaterally. Mind you, this is before the new Congress and its new leadership have even the opportunity to take action. It's almost as if he is looking for a fight.
I think he is making a big mistake.
I don't say this as a Republican, but rather as an American, because if anything stands out about my years in office it is that I have never viewed politics through a partisan lens. George Washington was right when he warned 200 years ago about the dangers of "factions," the 18th century version of political parties. Politics should be about ideas and, plain and simple, this is a bad idea.
Let me give you three reasons why I think this is so.
Over my eight years as governor, I learned a thing or two about the importance of finding ways to work with one's legislative body. On some things I succeeded, on others, I didn't, but in all of it I came to begrudgingly see that no matter how good I thought our administration's idea might be, what mattered by way of constitutional design was what they thought of the idea. For the president to ignore this reality is to poison the well of the two years he still has in office and that hurts much more than his legacy - it hurts each of us.
Two, the notion of the president going it alone tears against all that the Founding Fathers designed. They were so emphatically persistent in creating what John Adams called a "government not of men, but of laws" that they set in place redundant checks and balances and divided power both laterally across the federal system and vertically to include the individual, local and state governments so that they believed no president could act unilaterally. The president has in the past even said he agrees with this when he said on different occasions the following: "With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportations through executive order, that's just not the case, because there are laws on the books that Congress has passed." ... "Now, I know some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own ... but that's not how our system works. That's not how our democracy functions. That's not how our Constitution is written."
His words should guide his actions now.
Finally, if he plows ahead there will be a whole host of unintended consequences. Justice will not be served to the 4.4 million people presently in the immigration queue. They have waited and been a part of the lawful process where visas application processing in some cases goes back as far as 1990. What will they, and those they love, believe about waiting in future lines and the rule of law in America?
More immediately, his action will produce another stampede of future citizens headed for our Southwest border. In the wake of the president's unilateral move on the so-called DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), illegal immigration ballooned from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Illegal apprehensions spiraled for each of the three countries to 13,301, 14,086 and 16,546 by 2014 from essentially nothing just two years before.
Think about that for a moment. Thousands of people from south of our border took what the president said a matter of months ago as a sign that there would be amnesty if they traveled north. About 45,000 of them were apprehended from these three countries alone, and now with this much more overt expression of amnesty can one really imagine what will come our way next?
The tug of war of wills and ideas will now begin.
Let's hope that its outcome preserves our 200-year tradition of a rule of law and checks and balances within our federal system.
Mark Sanford, a Republican, represents South Carolina's 1st District in the U.S. House.