Obama’s ‘pen and phone’ barrage

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It’s been the year of the “pen and phone” for President Obama.

Obama in January declared his intent to use executive power to enact policy changes without Congress, and he has lived up to his promise, making aggressive moves on climate change, immigration, land protections and the minimum wage.

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Obama knew he would have to rely on executive action given Republican control of Congress, and he has raced through 2014 to get as much done as possible.

The pace has only picked up since the midterm elections, with big announcements on immigration, climate change and foreign policy with Cuba.

“He’s pushing every executive power to the limit,” said Robert Cresanti, executive vice president of government relations at the International Franchise Association.

Here’s a look at how Obama used his power in 2014 and where he might be headed.

Immigration

Obama after the midterm elections issued an order protecting about 4.5 million illegal immigrants from deportation.

Obama directed federal agencies not to deport the parents of immigrants who are living legally in the U.S. He also expanded the scope of young immigrants who qualify for such protections. 

The move enraged Republicans, who accused the president of going around Congress to act alone on immigration. 

And Republicans have promised to take action to curb the orders. But it’s unclear whether there’s much they can do. Even a government shutdown would leave most federal employees involved with processing the new immigrant cases at their desks.

That could leave the decision on what happens to immigrants newly granted legal status to Obama’s successor. Which means immigration could be a major issue in 2016.

Minimum wage

Obama signed an executive order in February effectively raising the minimum wage for employees at government contractors.

Federal contractors are now required to pay their employees no less than $10.10 an hour or risk losing business with the government.

With Congress not willing to raise the federal minimum wage for all workers from the current rate of $7.25 an hour, Obama acted alone to lift thousands of employees of government contractors out of poverty.

However, the president’s authority only extends to federal contractors because he can dictate the terms of their contracts with the government.

Obama cannot raise the federal minimum wage for all private sector workers without congressional action, and with Republicans in control of the House and Senate, that seems unlikely.

Gay rights

Obama this summer ordered new workplace protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees of federal contractors.

The Labor Department carried out the executive order earlier this month with new rules prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Federal contractors that do not comply with the new workplace protections for LGBT employees risk losing business with the government.

Gay rights advocates had long called for such workplace protections, but without congressional action, Obama’s authority only extends as far as federal contractors.

Congress would need to act to provide workplace protections for the majority of private sector LGBT employees.

Police militarization

In the wake of the police killings of two unarmed black men, Obama this month acted unilaterally to reform law enforcement practices around the country. He signed an executive order last week creating a task force to review police practices. The task force will deliver its recommendations by March.

Obama also called for $263 million in funding for state and local police departments to purchase body-worn cameras and improve training for officers using military-style weapons.

Environment

Obama has also called for a number of environmental reforms.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy have been leading the charge for Obama’s climate change agenda.

In January, the EPA moved forward with rules to cut carbon emissions at new power plants and then followed that up a few months later with even more controversial rules that would cut carbon emissions at existing power plants by 30 percent through 2030.

The rules, which critics have labeled a “war on coal,” are likely to be one of the most consequential policy changes of Obama’s second term, should they be enacted before he leaves office.

More recently, the EPA proposed a new air pollution rule that industry groups warn could be the “most expensive regulation in history.” The National Association of Manufacturers estimates the new ozone rules would cost industry $270 billion per year to comply with. 

Environmental groups say the new ozone standards are long overdue. The EPA punted on the rules ahead of the 2012 presidential election, a move that was heavily criticized as politically motivated.

National parks

Obama has designated 13 national monuments through the Antiquities Act, leading to more than 1 million acres of public land being protected.

Oftentimes, these monuments evolve into national parks over time. 

Before Obama took office, previous presidents had designated 144 monuments. But Republicans complain that Obama is abusing his power by tightening the restrictions on so much public land.