Reversing Executive Orders and the Limits of Power: What Makes Politics, Politics

Reversing Executive Orders and the Limits of Power: What Makes Politics, Politics

True confessions here: In my first couple of years on Tampa’s City Council, I chafed at what I perceived (mostly incorrectly) as the failure of more senior colleagues to use the power in their hands to help set the course for the city. After all, even in a strong mayor form of municipal government, doesn’t the council have power to make things happen?

Well . . .

The answer is yes, of course, but with huge caveats. And in Florida, where Sunshine requirements prohibit members of council from meeting in private to test out ideas or develop an agenda, the caveats grow enormously, almost obscuring the quiet little “yes.”

But we’re not alone.

The U.S. House of Representatives, if one may speak of the House as an entity like a city council, has found itself back on familiar and frustrating terrain in its efforts to reverse President Obama’s actions. This time, it has been over the effort to undo President Obama’s executive orders related to immigration.

In large measure, this is because the House is truly a house divided, with three evident factions (two different groups of Republicans, and a mostly unified Democratic caucus) embracing different objectives to at least some extent and, at least as important, different methods of pursuing those objectives. That reality handed Speaker Boehner an embarrassing defeat last week and limited the options this week.

But even if the House exhibited a more united front . . . even if, say, the major split in Republican ranks was mended, the effort to undo what the president has done on immigration would be thwarted. Because Senate Republicans would need to be similarly united for the same cause, and capable of attracting a substantial number of Democrats to boot, to override the essentially certain presidential veto.

So, yes, the U.S. House is a powerful institution . . . just not that powerful. Perhaps that has come as a shock to some of its members.

Governor Rick Scott learned the same lesson about the power of his office right from the start of his first term. Now, as both a lame duck and a persistently unpopular leader, the governor faces an uphill fight (pun intended) on any legislative initiative that isn’t already a part of the vision the leadership of the two houses has for these next two years.

Chief executive, yes (more or less). Chief policy maker, not so much.

I suspect most of us in politics have gone through this learning process, coming to terms with the limits of our power and influence. Some of us manage to act as though we aren’t limited, and perhaps, in some political lives, the limits were few. But most of us, sooner rather than later, discover that our vision vastly exceeds our individual authority to bring it to fruition.

That’s precisely what makes politics, politics. Proposing, adjusting, listening, resisting, acceding, refusing, embracing, abandoning, prevailing . . . all part of getting the work of governing done. Ideas are not enough. Conviction is not enough. Persuasion and accommodation both are essential to the project of leading a city, a state or a nation.