The House approved legislation Wednesday that would let Congress file civil lawsuits against the executive branch for failing to enforce the laws, a response to what Republicans say is an Obama administration that routinely ignores the will of Congress.
Members approved the bill in a 233-181 vote. Every Republican voted for it, along with five Democrats: Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Henry Cuellar (Texas), Pete Gallego (Texas), Collin Peterson (Minn.), and Nick Rahall (W.Va.).
Republicans have cited Obama's decisions to deprioritize the deportation of younger illegal residents, ease welfare work requirements and delay various ObamaCare enforcement provisions as examples of Obama's failure to follow the law.
While the legislation will go nowhere in the Senate, it highlights an issue Republicans expect to rally their base to turn out for this year's midterm elections.
"The Obama administration … has ignored the Constitution's carefully balanced separation of powers and unilaterally granted itself the extra-constitutional authority to amend the laws and to waive or suspend their enforcement," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.).
"Throughout the Obama presidency, we have seen a pattern — President Obama circumvents Congress when he doesn't get his way," he added. "But the Constitution does not confer upon the president the executive authority to disregard the separation of powers and rewrite acts of Congress based on his policy preferences."
The legislation from Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) would let the House or Senate file civil lawsuits against the executive branch, which would be fast-tracked to the Supreme Court if any party sought an appeal. Gowdy said the Obama administration leaves Congress with no option but to create a new process for challenging these decisions.
"If a president does not faithfully execute the law … what are our remedies?" Gowdy asked. "Do we just sit and wait on another election? Do we use the power of the purse, the power of impeachment? Those are punishments; those are not remedies."
Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the administration's actions show that it "doesn't care" about the rule of law. He said Democrats would never stand for it if a Republican president failed to uphold laws he opposes.
"What if future Republican presidents decide that they don't like the tax increases enacted by Democrats in Congress or a past Democratic president?" Cantor asked. "Can that president just refuse to collect those taxes or resist enforcing laws they don't like? No."
Democrats argued Republicans were overreacting to executive branch discretion that all presidents have had — discretion that has been accepted in several court cases. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said the constitutional duty to ensure that the laws are "faithfully" executed lies only with the president.
"Questions about when and how to implement and enforce laws are within the president's discretion, as the 'take care' clause makes clear," Cohen said. "It is the president's duty alone to take care that laws be faithfully executed, not the courts and not Congress's."
Some Democrats argued that Republicans were pursuing the law in order to reverse Obama's decision to prioritize deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) charged that Republicans seemed interested in deporting the wives of immigrants serving in the U.S. military.
"We knew that the majority wanted to deport the Dream Act kids, because they voted for the King amendment last year," she said. "But if you want to deport the wives of American soldiers in Afghanistan, I'm sorry; it's a new low."
Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said that, if the bill had been law in decades past, it would have had the effect of blocking some of the country's most important social and political developments.
"If H.R. 4138 had been law in 1861, the Congress could have sued President Lincoln for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, because Congress could have concluded that President Lincoln had failed to enforce then-existing laws protecting the institution of slavery," he said.
"Likewise, if H.R. 4138 had been law in 1948, Congress could have sued President Truman for issuing Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the Armed Services in contravention of then-existing military policy."
The bill was passed one day after the White House argued that the bill violates the Constitution and said Obama would veto the legislation. On the idea of launching a legal challenge against the failure of the government to enforce the laws, the White House said, "Congress may not assign such power to itself, not may it assign to the courts the task of resolving such generalized political disputes.
The deep opposition to the bill among Democrats means the Senate is highly unlikely to consider it.
Before the bill passed, the House approved an amendment from Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) that would require an accounting of the costs of litigation brought against the executive branch. It passed by voice vote.
But members rejected three other Democratic amendments that were aimed at narrowing the scope of the bill.
The first, from Conyers, excluded any actions to combat discrimination or to protect civil rights. It failed 188-227.
The second, from Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), excluded from the bill any action taken under a claim of prosecutorial discretion. It failed 190-225.
The third failed in a 185-231 vote. Sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), it excluded any action taken to comply with a judicial decision interpreting the Constitution or federal laws.