Monday, April 23, 2012

Social Security trustees see earlier fund depletion date

Updated 4:05pm ET    The trustees of the Social Security system said Monday the fund that helps sustain retiree and survivors’ benefits will become exhausted in 2033, three years sooner than they projected last year.

At that point, payroll taxes and taxation of Social Security benefits will provide only enough income to pay about 75 percent of the benefits that Congress has promised to retirees and survivors.

In practical terms, this means that a 40-year-old worker who is eligible to collect retirement benefits in 2039, would see his or her expected retirement benefit cut by about 25 percent, unless Congress took action to change the program’s funding or its benefit structure.

The trustees attributed a big part of the change in their forecast to “slower growth in average earnings, lower interest rates, and higher unemployment rates due to a longer period of recovery from the recent recession,” as well as to a 3.6 percent cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits last December.

Last year, Social Security paid benefits of $725 billion. There were about 55 million beneficiaries.

In their annual report(below), the trustees also estimated that Social Security’s Disability Insurance fund will be exhausted in 2016, two years sooner than last year’s estimate. Congress will need to take action to avert that outcome, with the most likely remedy being a reallocation of the payroll tax between the part of the tax that supports Social Security’s retirement and survivors’ benefits and the part of the tax that pays for disability benefits.

The Social Security system does have assets in the form of $2.7 trillion in Treasury bonds -- but those assets must be redeemed – cashed in – in order to pay benefits.

“The redemption of those bonds can only occur out of current income,” explained Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad last year. “The general fund has been borrowing from Social Security and we've borrowed well over $2 trillion,” he said. “That money has got to be paid back. How's it going to be paid back? It's going to be paid back by the other general expenditures of the federal government having to be reduced to make way for the payments that we're going to have to make on those bonds.”

The trustees said that to keep the Social Security trust funds solvent over the next 75 years, Congress could take a number of steps:
  • increase the payroll tax rate from its current level of 12.4 percent to 15.01 percent;
  • reduce benefits by 16.2 percent;
  • find alternative sources of revenue;
  • adopt some combination of these approaches.
Separately, the trustees, who are also the trustees of the Medicare program, reported that the Medicare fund that pays hospital costs for older and disabled Americans will be exhausted by 2024, the same forecast as they made last year.

After the assets of the Medicare fund are gone, if Congress were to take no action, projected Medicare revenue would be adequate to cover 87 percent of the estimated spending in 2024 and about two-thirds of projected costs in 2050.

The trustees’ report underscored the need for Congress to either change the funding of Medicare or curb the increasing cost of the benefits being paid out, or address both funding and benefits.

Reaction to the trustees’ reports varied widely along the ideological spectrum.
Jason Fichtner, a senior research fellow at the free-market oriented Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said the report showed that Social Security will be facing an increasing mismatch between taxes being paid in and benefits being paid out.

“The longer we wait, the higher the tax rate is going to have to be to make up the difference… This is a big shortfall and it's just going to get larger with each passing year if we don’t do something to reform Social Security,” he said.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said, “Despite the repeated efforts of Republicans to privatize Social Security and end the Medicare guarantee, these vital initiatives remain strong.  Today’s Trustees’ report affirms that Social Security and Medicare will continue to provide critical benefits to seniors and other Americans.”

AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka said in a statement that the report “confirms that Social Security remains a vibrant, strong, and durable program….The Social Security surplus is large and growing. Despite lower than expected wage and economic growth and unexpected increases in the cost of living, Social Security will be able to pay full scheduled benefits at least until 2033 absent congressional action.”

He pledged that the labor union confederation “will oppose any Social Security benefit cuts, such as a reduction of COLAs (cost of living adjustments) or an increase in the retirement age, no matter who proposes them.”

But Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Budget, saw the trustees report as “a good reminder of what we've known for decades now -- that the Social Security program is on a troubling path and must be reformed. Time is not on our side, and the longer we wait the harder it is going to be to fix this program."

Trustee's Report Ss 2012

'Grandiose': A look back at Gingrich's campaign moments


Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, center, and his wife Callista, tour the Wilheit Packaging factory in Gainesville, Ga. AP / Evan Vucci

In today's Deep Dive we take a look back at Newt Gingrich's run during the 2012 primary, and cover some of his greatest and most interesting comments said on the campaign trail.

BALTIMORE, MD -- Newt Gingrich considers himself a man of “really big ideas” and has used his presidential run to share them with thousands of Americans.
The former House speaker faced criticism from opponents for being “grandiose,” which prompted Gingrich to respond in January: “I accept the charge that I am grandiose and that Americans are instinctively grandiose."
While Gingrich continues fighting the increasingly uphill battle of trying to become the Republican nominee, here is a recap of some of the more fantastical ideas he has thrown out over the past 10 months of the campaign.


"By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon. And it will be American." – Cocoa, FL 1.25.12


“I want to restate, far from backing off, I want to restate, America has a destiny in space. It is a part of who we are. We are not going to back off from John Kennedy’s challenge and we are not going to go timidly into the night allowing the Chinese to dominate the future of space.” – Huntsville, AL 3.6.12


“UPS and FedEx move twenty four million packages a day and track them in virtually real time. Over here is the federal government, the world that fails. And let me give you an example of what I’m talking about: twenty four million packages tracked while they move; eleven million illegal visitors sitting still. Or 15 million. One of my proposals is very simple. We send a package to every person who’s here illegally. When it’s delivered, we pull it up, we know exactly where they are. It’s on the computer.” – Council Bluffs, IA 11.30.11


“You think about an Iranian nuclear weapon.  You think about the dangers – to Cleveland, or to Columbus, or to Cincinnati, or to New York.   Remember what it felt like on 9/11 when 3100 Americans were killed.  Now imagine an attack where you add 2 zeros.  And it’s 300,000 dead.  Maybe a half million wounded.  This is a real danger.  This is not science fiction.  That’s why I think it’s important that we have the strongest possible national security.” – Cleveland, OH 2.8.12


“You have a bipartisan establishment that has been running this country, that has created a gigantic mess.  You have bureaucracies that are out of control, judges who think they can be dictators.  You have systems around this country.  You have laws that don’t work.  So, we have got to change not just Obama, we have got to change the entire direction of the United States of America to get it back on track and that is our obligation to these young people." – Rock Hill, SC 1.11.12


“The long-term answer is American’s producing their own energy and telling other people, ‘you may have a problem, we don’t because we can be the largest oil producer in the world by the end of this decade. Bigger than Russia, bigger than Saudi Arabia. We have vastly more resources than any other country if we use them.” – San Francisco, CA 2.25.12


“We’re not going to fix Afghanistan.  It’s not possible…There’s some problems where what you have to do is say, ‘You know, you’re going to have to figure out how to live your own miserable life because I’m not here – you clearly don’t want to hear from me how to be unmiserable.’  And that’s what you’re going to see happen.” – Nashville, TN 2.27.12


“I believe we need to reassess every element of our relationship with the Islamic world and we need to be prepared to do whatever it takes to become economically independent and to be able to tell the truth. And American president who cannot tell the truth cannot possibly defend this country.” – Rome, GA 2.28.12


”Between the election and the inauguration, I will try to meet with every Democrat individually and sit down with them face to face and say look I’m going to be here for four years and what is it that you’re trying to get done that’s compatible with what I’m trying to get down. Now, they’ll break down into three groups. There will be the crazies. We won’t invite them back. There will be hardheaded guys who you can get occasionally. And there will be folks who say I’m glad we’re trying to do this together, let’s see what we can get done.” – Mobile, AL 3.10.12


”Let me just say to the president: I will be glad to debate him anywhere, any time, and I’ll go a step further just to make it non-political. We ought to debate on pay-per-view and we ought to charge ten bucks to watch the debate, and it ought to go to a charity of our mutual choice, and it would be the largest charity fundraiser in the country this year. And the topic ought to be price of gasoline.” – Shreveport, LA 3.20.12


“The psychological attitude of the modern world is such that if Thomas Edison invented the electric light in the modern era, it would be reported on the network news as the candle making industry was threatened today. And somebody on the left would jump up and say this was all an excuse for killing poor people by putting electricity in their homes, and who knows what the electricity will do to them. And is this really a gamble to electrocute people? Think about -- Everything we do nowadays is negative.” – Frederick, MD 4.2.12


“If you went to somebody who was a great cook and you said ‘do you think you can bake a birthday cake’ and they said ‘sure I can bake a birthday cake,’ the odds are pretty high they’ll be able to bake a birthday cake. Now it helps to have a recipe for birthday cakes and it helps to have baked one. President Obama’s biggest challenge is, that he has exactly the wrong ideas. He belongs to an ideology that believes the way you get hard eggs is you freeze them (laughs)…. This is his whole problem with job creation.” – Dyersville, IA 12.27.11


“And so I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention to talk about why the African American community should demand pay checks and not be satisfied with food stamps. And I’ll go to them and I’ll explain a brand new social security opportunity for young people, which would be particularly good for African American males, because they’re the group that gets the smallest return on social security…” – Plymouth, NH 1.5.12


“You have a very poor neighborhood. You have kids who are required under law to go to school. They have no money, they have habit of work. But what if you paid them part time in the afternoon to sit in the clerical office and greet people that came in. What if you paid them to work as the assistant librarian? And I’d pay them as early as was reasonable and practical. And then we get into the janitor thing. These letters were written saying janitorial work is really hard and really dangerous. Fine. So what if they became assistant janitors and their job was to mop the floor and clean the bathroom and you pay them?” – Des Moines, IA 12.1.11


“You can’t put a gun rack in a Volt. So, let’s be clear what this election is all about. We believe in the right to bear arms and we like to bare the arms in our truck, there.” – Peachtree City, GA 2.17.12


“If you would like to have a national American energy policy, never again bow to a Saudi king and pay $2.50 a gallon, Newt Gingrich will be your candidate.” – San Francisco, CA 2.25.12


“We should indicate calmly and decisively that any act to close the Straits of Hormuz will be considered an act of war and we will eliminate the government of Iran.” – Knoxville, TN 3.5.12


“I think the vast majority of them should go home. And we should be very clear about this. If you are here without any great ties to the United States and you came here illegally, you just need to leave and apply for the guest worker program from back home. Period…I do think that if you have somebody in your neighborhood who has been here for 25 years, and they belong to your church and they have three kids and two grandkids, and they have been paying taxes and working hard the entire time, it’s going to be very, very hard to get the American people to agree that we should tear up those families and expel them.” – Naples, FL 11.25.11


“I do think it’s legitimate for the Congress and the president to address the 9th circuit’s aggressive anti-religious bias but I think that will be done with other methods. I’d ask the Congress to look seriously at either impeaching or replacing the 9th circuit.” – South El Monte, CA 1.15.12


“I proposed yesterday what Chris Cox of the NRA called the Gingrich Treaty. As president, I would propose that the United States submit a treaty that says that the right to bear arms is a universal human right and that every human being on the planet should have the right to bear arms. That the Second Amendment should apply everywhere." – Raleigh, NC 4.14.12


"The number of things we'll learn by learning about the brain will absolutely pay for itself probably by a thousand to one or better. Literally in terms of cost to the government … This is a very big idea in an area that I don't know of any political leader who is willing to tackle that would lead to a dramatic explosion of new science that would lead directly to a better quality outcome for health which would lower the cost of healthcare which would help solve our long term budget problems and would create a huge new zone of creating American jobs. But it requires having a conversation in an area the people just aren't used to talking about politically.” – Iowa City, IA 12.14.12

Conservative nonprofit ALEC acts as stealth business lobbyist

Image: Stephen Spaulding and Nick Surgey of Common Cause
Stephen Crowley  /  The New York Times
Stephen Spaulding, left, and Nick Surgey of Common Cause look through American Legislative Exchange Council documents.
updated 4/22/2012 12:56:58 AM ET

Desperate for new revenue, Ohio lawmakers introduced legislation last year that would make it easier to recover money from businesses that defraud the state.
It was quickly flagged at the Washington headquarters of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a business-backed group that views such “false claims” laws as encouraging frivolous lawsuits. ALEC’s membership includes not only corporations, but nearly 2,000 state legislators across the country — including dozens who would vote on the Ohio bill.
One of them, Bill Seitz, a prominent Republican state senator, wrote to a fellow senior lawmaker to relay ALEC’s concerns about “the recent upsurge” in false-claims legislation nationwide. “While this is understandable, as states are broke, the considered advice from our friends at ALEC was that such legislation is not well taken and should not be approved,” he said in a private memorandum.
The legislation was reworked to ease some of ALEC’s concerns, making it one of many bills the group has influenced by mobilizing its lawmaker members, a vast majority of them Republicans.
Despite its generally low profile, ALEC has drawn scrutiny recently for promoting gun rights policies like the Stand Your Ground law at the center of the Trayvon Martin shooting case in Florida, as well as bills to weaken labor unions and tighten voter identification rules. Amid the controversies, several companies, including Coca-Cola, Intuit and Kraft Foods, have left the group.
Most of the attention has focused on ALEC’s role in creating model bills, drafted by lobbyists and lawmakers, that broadly advance a pro-business, socially conservative agenda. But a review of internal ALEC documents shows that this is only one facet of a sophisticated operation for shaping public policy at a state-by-state level. The records offer a glimpse of how special interests effectively turn ALEC’s lawmaker members into stealth lobbyists, providing them with talking points, signaling how they should vote and collaborating on bills affecting hundreds of issues like school vouchers and tobacco taxes. 

Obtained by Common Cause 

The documents — hundreds of pages of minutes of private meetings, member e-mail alerts and correspondence — were obtained by the watchdog group Common Cause and shared with The New York Times. Common Cause, which said it got some of the documents from a whistle-blower and others from public record requests in state legislatures, is using the files to support an Internal Revenue Service complaint asserting that ALEC has abused its tax-exempt status, something ALEC denies.

“We know its mission is to bring together corporations and state legislators to draft profit-driven, anti-public-interest legislation, and then help those elected officials pass the bills in statehouses from coast to coast,” said the president of Common Cause, Bob Edgar. “If that’s not lobbying, what is?”
ALEC argues that it provides a forum for lawmakers to network and to hear from constituencies that share an interest in promoting free-market, limited-government policies. Lobbying laws differ by state, and ALEC maintains that if any of its members’ interactions with one another happen to qualify as lobbying in a particular state, that does not mean ALEC, as an organization, lobbies.

Mr. Seitz, who sits on ALEC’s governing board, said he believed that liberal groups like Common Cause are attacking the organization out of frustration that “they don’t have a comparable group that is as effective as ALEC in enacting policies into law.” He said that ALEC was not much different from other professional associations that represent state legislators, and that members were free to ignore or disagree with the group’s policy positions.
“This concept that private companies are writing the bills and handing them to gullible legislators to trundle off and pass is false,” Mr. Seitz said. “There is nothing new, surprising or sinister about private-sector organizations coming together with legislators to share ideas and learn from each other.”
Even so, the effectiveness of ALEC’s bill-production system is a major part of the group’s appeal to businesses. A membership brochure last year boasted that ALEC lawmakers typically introduced more than 1,000 bills based on model legislation each year and passed about 17 percent of them. A members-only newsletter from 1995, found in an online archive of tobacco company documents, bluntly characterized that success ratio as “a good investment.”
“Nowhere else can you get a return that high,” it said. 

Roots with Weyrich 

ALEC, which is registered as a public charity under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, traces its roots to 1973, when the conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich and several other Republicans sought to create a state-level clearinghouse for conservative ideas. Although its board is made up of legislators, who pay $50 a year to belong, ALEC is primarily financed by more than 200 private-sector members, whose annual dues of $7,000 to $25,000 accounted for most of its $7 million budget in 2010.

Some companies give much more, all of it tax deductible: AT&T, Pfizer and Reynolds American each contributed $130,000 to $398,000, according to a copy of ALEC’s 2010 tax returns, obtained by The Times, that included donors’ names, which are normally withheld from public inspection. The returns show that corporate members pay stipends — it calls them “scholarships” — for lawmakers to travel to annual conferences, including a four-day retreat where ALEC spends as much as $250,000 on child care for members’ families.
At the conferences, internal records show, representatives of corporations sit with legislators on eight task forces dealing with issues like telecommunications, health care and product liability. (ALEC announced last week that it was disbanding a ninth task force on public safety and elections, which was the focus of much of the recent scrutiny of the group.) Each task force is led by a legislator and someone from the private sector. Corporate members in recent years have included Bank of America, Walmart, Verizon, Microsoft and Connections Education, an online learning company.
The task forces develop model bills that legislators then introduce in their home states. The provenance of those bills is not always apparent to those being asked to vote on them. But minutes of task force meetings, not available to the public, show how some of the bills were produced and who within ALEC sponsored them.
Last December, ALEC adopted model legislation, based on a Texas law, addressing the public disclosure of chemicals in drilling fluids used to extract natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The ALEC legislation, which has since provided the basis for similar bills submitted in five states, has been promoted as a victory for consumers’ right to know about potential drinking water contaminants.
A close reading of the bill, however, reveals loopholes that would allow energy companies to withhold the names of certain fluid contents, for reasons including that they have been deemed trade secrets. Most telling, perhaps, the bill was sponsored within ALEC by ExxonMobil, one of the largest practitioners of fracking — something not explained when ALEC lawmakers introduced their bills back home. 

Corporations' influence 

ALEC says that its lawmaker members have the ultimate say over its policy deliberations, and that no model bills are adopted unless its governing board, made up entirely of legislators, approves it. But the organization’s rules give corporations a great deal of influence on the task forces, where model legislation must first clear a preliminary vote before going to the board. As a result, meeting minutes show, draft bills that are preferred by a majority of lawmakers are sometimes killed by the corporate members at the table.

In August, the telecommunications task force met and considered a model resolution regarding online piracy that had been introduced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Although AT&T, Verizon and AOL could not agree on the details, the lawmakers present overwhelmingly supported the resolution in a 17-to-1 vote. However, because the corporate members deadlocked 8 to 8, the bill failed.
Beyond creating model bills, ALEC keeps careful track of state legislation, as well as national issues, and tries to mobilize its lawmaker members to take action. Aides on ALEC task forces keep detailed, color-coded spreadsheets on “good bills” and “problematic bills” in all 50 states, and they regularly send e-mails to alert legislators about ones that ALEC opposes or supports.
ALEC also sends talking points to its lawmakers to use when speaking publicly about issues like President Obama’s health care law. Last month, on the day that Supreme Court arguments on the law began, ALEC sent an e-mail to legislators with a bullet-point list of criticisms of it, to be used “in your next radio interview, town hall meeting, op-ed or letter to the editor.”
Alan P. Dye, a lawyer for ALEC, acknowledged that the group’s practice of communicating with lawmakers about specific bills could meet the federal definition of lobbying, if not for an exception that he said applied when such interactions were a result of “nonpartisan research and analysis.” ALEC simply offers independently produced material for elected officials to consider, Mr. Dye said.
“If you look at the ALEC method of operating, it’s all based on nonpartisan research and analysis,” he said. “They have consensus building, pros and cons, everyone has a say.”
Critics dismiss that argument as misleading. Lisa Graves, the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which teamed up with The Nation magazine to publicize a cache of 800 ALEC model bills last year, said that as of last August, all but one of 104 leadership positions within the organization were filled by Republicans and that the policies ALEC promoted were almost uniformly conservative.
“They talk a good game about being bipartisan,” Ms. Graves said, “but the record shows the opposite.”
Mr. Seitz, the Ohio state senator, said concerns about partisanship, lobbying and the shaping of model bills were beside the point, because whatever emerged from the ALEC process would be subjected to “endless public vetting” in legislatures before becoming law.
As for his decision to write a memo raising objections to the Ohio false-claims bill, Mr. Seitz, a lawyer and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that occurred after he attended an ALEC task force meeting and talked about it with his co-chairman, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist who represents the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other businesses. He said he learned that the bill, as originally written, would have been “a trial lawyer’s bonanza,” and so he has been working with the state attorney general to draft legislation more acceptable to himself — and to ALEC.
“I expect there could be hearings on it within the next month,” Mr. Seitz said.
This article, "Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist," first appeared in The New York Times.

Shift on executive power lets Obama bypass rivals

updated 4/23/2012 12:53:54 AM ET
One Saturday last fall, President Obama interrupted a White House strategy meeting to raise an issue not on the agenda. He declared, aides recalled, that the administration needed to more aggressively use executive power to govern in the face of Congressional obstructionism.
“We had been attempting to highlight the inability of Congress to do anything,” recalled William M. Daley, who was the White House chief of staff at the time. “The president expressed frustration, saying we have got to scour everything and push the envelope in finding things we can do on our own.”
For Mr. Obama, that meeting was a turning point. As a senator and presidential candidate, he had criticized George W. Bush for flouting the role of Congress. And during his first two years in the White House, when Democrats controlled Congress, Mr. Obama largely worked through the legislative process to achieve his domestic policy goals.
But increasingly in recent months, the administration has been seeking ways to act without Congress. Branding its unilateral efforts “We Can’t Wait,” a slogan that aides said Mr. Obama coined at that strategy meeting, the White House has rolled out dozens of new policies — on creating jobs for veterans, preventing drug shortages, raising fuel economy standards, curbing domestic violence and more.
Each time, Mr. Obama has emphasized the fact that he is bypassing lawmakers. When he announced a cut in refinancing fees for federally insured mortgages last month, for example, he said: “If Congress refuses to act, I’ve said that I’ll continue to do everything in my power to act without them.”
Aides say many more such moves are coming. Not just a short-term shift in governing style and a re-election strategy, Mr. Obama’s increasingly assertive use of executive action could foreshadow pitched battles over the separation of powers in his second term, should he win and Republicans consolidate their power in Congress.
Many conservatives have denounced Mr. Obama’s new approach. But William G. Howell, a University of Chicago political science professor and author of “Power Without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action,” said Mr. Obama’s use of executive power to advance domestic policies that could not pass Congress was not new historically. Still, he said, because of Mr. Obama’s past as a critic of executive unilateralism, his transformation is remarkable.
“What is surprising is that he is coming around to responding to the incentives that are built into the institution of the presidency,” Mr. Howell said. “Even someone who has studied the Constitution and holds it in high regard — he, too, is going to exercise these unilateral powers because his long-term legacy and his standing in the polls crucially depend upon action.”
Mr. Obama has issued signing statements claiming a right to bypass a handful of constraints — rejecting as unconstitutional Congress’s attempt to prevent him from having White House “czars” on certain issues, for example. But for the most part, Mr. Obama’s increased unilateralism in domestic policy has relied on a different form of executive power than the sort that had led to heated debates during his predecessor’s administration: Mr. Bush’s frequent assertion of a right to override statutes on matters like surveillance and torture.
“Obama’s not saying he has the right to defy a Congressional statute,” said Richard H. Pildes, a New York University law professor. “But if the legislative path is blocked and he otherwise has the legal authority to issue an executive order on an issue, they are clearly much more willing to do that now than two years ago.”
The Obama administration started down this path soon after Republicans took over the House of Representatives last year. In February 2011, Mr. Obama directed the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages, against constitutional challenges. Previously, the administration had urged lawmakers to repeal it, but had defended their right to enact it.
In the following months, the administration increased efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions through environmental regulations, gave states waivers from federal mandates if they agreed to education overhauls, and refocused deportation policy in a way that in effect granted relief to some illegal immigrants brought to the country as children. Each step substituted for a faltered legislative proposal.
But those moves were isolated and cut against the administration’s broader political messaging strategy at the time: that Mr. Obama was trying to reach across the aisle to get things done. It was only after the summer, when negotiations over a deficit reduction deal broke down and House Republicans nearly failed to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, that Mr. Obama fully shifted course.
First, he proposed a jobs package and gave speeches urging lawmakers to “pass this bill” — knowing they would not. A few weeks later, at the policy and campaign strategy meeting in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, the president told aides that highlighting Congressional gridlock was not enough.
“He wanted to continue down the path of being bold with Congress and flexing our muscle a little bit, and showing a contrast to the American people of a Congress that was completely stuck,” said Nancy-Ann DeParle, a deputy chief of staff assigned to lead the effort to come up with ideas.
Ms. DeParle met twice a week with members of the domestic policy council to brainstorm. She met with cabinet secretaries in the fall, and again in February with their chiefs of staff. No one opposed doing more; the challenge was coming up with workable ideas, aides said.
The focus, said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, was “what we could do on our own to help the economy in areas Congress was failing to act,” so the list was not necessarily the highest priority actions, but instead steps that did not require legislation.
Republican lawmakers watched warily. One of Mr. Obama’s first “We Can’t Wait” announcements was the moving up of plans to ease terms on student loans. After Republican complaints that the executive branch had no authority to change the timing, it appeared to back off.
The sharpest legal criticism, however, came in January after Mr. Obama bypassed the Senate confirmation process to install four officials using his recess appointment powers, even though House Republicans had been forcing the Senate to hold “pro forma” sessions through its winter break to block such appointments.
Mr. Obama declared the sessions a sham, saying the Senate was really in the midst of a lengthy recess. His appointments are facing a legal challenge, and some liberals and many conservatives have warned that he set a dangerous precedent.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, who essentially invented the pro forma session tactic late in Mr. Bush’s presidency, has not objected, however. Senate aides said Mr. Reid had told the White House that he would not oppose such appointments based on a memorandum from his counsel, Serena Hoy. She concluded that the longer the tactic went unchallenged, the harder it would be for any president to make recess appointments — a significant shift in the historic balance of power between the branches.
The White House counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler, said the Obama administration’s legal team had begun examining the issue in early 2011 — including an internal Bush administration memo criticizing the notion that such sessions could block a president’s recess powers — and “seriously considered” making some appointments during Congress’s August break. But Mr. Obama decided to move ahead in January 2012, including installing Richard Cordray to head the new consumer financial protection bureau, after Senate Republicans blocked a confirmation vote.
“I refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer,” Mr. Obama declared, beneath a “We Can’t Wait” banner. “When Congress refuses to act and — as a result — hurts our economy and puts people at risk, I have an obligation as president to do what I can without them.”
The unilateralist strategy carries political risks. Mr. Obama cannot blame the Republicans when he adopts policies that liberals oppose, like when he overruled the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to strengthen antismog rules or decided not to sign an order banning discrimination by federal contractors based on sexual orientation.
The approach also exposes Mr. Obama to accusations that he is concentrating too much power in the White House. Earlier this year, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, delivered a series of floor speeches accusing Mr. Obama of acting “more and more like a king that the Constitution was designed to replace” and imploring colleagues of both parties to push back against his “power grabs.”
But Democratic lawmakers have been largely quiet; many of them accuse Republicans of engaging in an unprecedented level of obstructionism and say that Mr. Obama has to do what he can to make the government work. The pattern adds to a bipartisan history in which lawmakers from presidents’ own parties have tended not to object to invocations of executive power.
For their part, Republicans appear to have largely acquiesced. Mr. Grassley said in an interview that his colleagues were reluctant to block even more bills and nominations in response to Mr. Obama’s “chutzpah,” lest they play into his effort to portray them as making Congress dysfunctional.
“Some of the most conservative people in our caucus would adamantly disagree with what Obama did on recess appointments, but they said it’s not a winner for us,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s new approach puts him in the company of his recent predecessors. Mr. Bush, for example, failed to persuade Congress to pass a bill allowing religiously affiliated groups to receive taxpayer grants — and then issued an executive order making the change.
President Bill Clinton increased White House involvement in agency rule making, using regulations and executive orders to show that he was getting things done despite opposition from a Republican Congress on matters like land conservation, gun control, tobacco advertising and treaties. (He was assisted by a White House lawyer, Elena Kagan, who later won tenure at Harvard based on scholarship analyzing such efforts and who is now on the Supreme Court.)
And both the Reagan and George Bush administrations increased their control over executive agencies to advance a deregulatory agenda, despite opposition from Democratic lawmakers, while also developing legal theories and tactics to increase executive power, like issuing signing statements more frequently.
The bipartisan history of executive aggrandizement in recent decades complicates Republican criticism. In February, two conservative advocacy groups — Crossroads GPS and the American Action Network — sponsored a symposium to discuss what they called “the unprecedented expansion of executive power during the past three years.” It reached an awkward moment during a talk with a former attorney general, Edwin Meese III, and a former White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray.
“It’s kind of ironic you have Boyden and me here because when we were with the executive branch, we were probably the principal proponents of executive power under President Reagan and then President George H. W. Bush,” Mr. Meese said, quickly adding that the presidential prerogatives they sought to protect, unlike Mr. Obama’s, were valid.
But Jack L. Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel during the George W. Bush administration, said the Obama administration’s pattern reflects how presidents usually behave, especially during divided government, and appears aggressive only in comparison to Mr. Obama’s having been “really skittish for the first two years” about executive power.
“This is what presidents do,” Mr. Goldsmith said. “It’s taken Obama two years to get there, but this has happened throughout history. You can’t be in that office with all its enormous responsibilities — when things don’t happen, you get blamed for it — and not exercise all the powers that have accrued to it over time.”
This story, "Shift on Executive Power Lets Obama Bypass Rivals," first appeared in The New York Times.

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