What Republicans in Congress can learn from Harry Potter

At the beginning of the first book in the Harry Potter series, Harry is living life as an ordinary boy tormented by an uncaring aunt, uncle and cousin. Then he is visited by a giant named Hagrid who informs him he is a wizard. Harry refuses to believe it, insisting there must be some mistake. Hagrid gently reminds Harry of the times when he used magic to protect himself from his cruel family. All along, Harry had all the power he needed to defend himself, even if he didn’t fully realize it.

Harry Potter, of course, is a fictional character. But he has a lesson to teach to congressional Republicans, who need their own Hagrid to come along and remind them that they have plenty of power of their own.

Republican members of Congress are painting themselves as powerless to respond to President Obama, whom they describe as an unstoppable tyrant after the recent action he announced on immigration. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) even quoted the ancient Roman politician Cicero to suggest, as a classics professor concluded, that Obama may be guilty of treason.

{mosads}When congressional Republicans incorrectly describe Obama’s actions as tyrannical, they also incorrectly suggest they have no ability to do anything to oppose his actions on their own. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has suggested that the only way to rein in Obama’s actions (short of electing a new president) would be for the Supreme Court to reject the president’s actions.

It is unlikely that the Supreme Court will weigh in on the merits of the president’s actions, but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing Congress can do. As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia observed in a different context, “[i]f majorities in both Houses of Congress care enough about the matter, they have available innumerable ways to compel executive action without a lawsuit — from refusing to confirm Presidential appointees to the elimination of funding. (Nothing says ‘enforce the Act’ quite like ‘ … or you will have money for little else.’).”

It would be different if Obama had claimed inherent or plenary power to act. But he has not — Obama is relying on statutory authority to act. That means that Congress could change his decision simply by passing legislation that removes current statutory discretion granted to the president, expressly sets priorities for deportation and appropriates enough money to make the desired deportations possible (right now, there is only enough money appropriated to deport around 400,000 of the estimate 11.2 million people living in the United States without legal status).

Republican critics clearly want to cast the president in the role of monarch or dictator. But President Obama has claimed no such power (at least not in the context of domestic action — when it comes to national security, there are real concerns to be expressed about presidential overreach, though the tyrant language is still overblown). Congress has the power to set limits on presidential power. If it believes the president has gone too far, it has all the tools it needs to change the dynamic of the conversation and change the president’s action on immigration. Congress just needs to understand its own strength.

Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. He is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, published in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Tags Antonin Scalia Executive action Immigration plenary authority Rand Paul statutory authority Ted Cruz
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