Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency this week, activating the Missouri National Guard to help deal with potential violence after a grand jury decision in Ferguson.
We’ll soon know if the declaration was wise — or necessary. First, though, let’s note that Nixon’s decision appears to stretch state law.
Under Missouri statutes, a governor can declare a state of emergency “upon the actual occurrence of a natural or man-made disaster.” No actual disaster has taken place in Ferguson. While there were disturbances in the city this summer, the streets are quiet for now.
Nixon, though, appears to have decided on his own that the mere potential for disaster allows him to declare an emergency.
It isn’t the first time Nixon has flexed his executive branch muscles. His manipulation of state spending angered so many voters this year that they amended the state constitution to block similar unilateral decision-making down the road.
It’s an old story: The head of the executive branch asserting his or her authority by circumventing those pesky politicians in the lawmaking branch.
Which brings us to President Barack Obama.
He is expected to issue an executive order Thursday effectively legalizing millions of immigrants now improperly in the United States. Supporters say Obama will issue the order because of congressional inaction on the issue and because other presidents have made similar decisions.
Let’s assume, for argument, that both explanations are true. The order may still be a bad idea.
Not because of politics: Republicans in Congress will be mad at Obama no matter what he does. But we should all worry whenever a president or governor takes unilateral action on important issues outside the normal legislative process.
Democrats howled when President George W. Bush issued “signing statements” that declared parts of some laws void. They were angry when President Richard Nixon refused to spend appropriated funds. They’ll be madder still if a future GOP president takes apart Obamacare through executive orders, not legislation.
Yet Obama’s immigration order will provide a neat precedent for such an action.
It also would give some Americans an excuse to sit on their hands in future congressional races. Who needs to vote, they’ll say, when a president can fix problems on his or her own?
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Obama might think about that axiom before he puts his pen to paper.