My way or the highway
Modifying the draconian federal drugs law is a challenge President Obama and Congress must do together.
Too many people are in federal prison serving sentences for drug offenses that are too long.
To his credit, President Barack Obama wants to do something about it. To his discredit, he has decided to act unilaterally by ignoring the authority of Congress to write the laws that the executive branch is duty-bound to enforce.
In doing so, Obama is giving even more ammunition to critics who argue that his conduct is not just lawless but sets a dangerous precedent for Republicans to act in the same way when they, as they inevitably will, someday win the presidency.
This country's drug laws are far too harsh, particularly as they relate to nonviolent offenders caught with relatively small quantities of illegal drugs.
Working together, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill already have passed legislation and are working on additional legislation to address various aspects of the problem. Illinois' Democratic U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin has joined with Utah's Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Lee to co-sponsor a bill modifying sentencing rules that has received considerable publicity.
So there is bipartisan agreement that this problem requires a legislative solution, meaning Congress passes a bill and President Obama signs it into law. That's what the U.S. Constitution requires.
Unfortunately, Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have decided to go it alone. Holder last week announced a new policy in which the White House will unilaterally grant clemency to drug offenders.
The particulars of the program are not the problem. It's the program itself — the unprecedented expansion of clemency authority — that is the problem.
Under the arrangement, Obama apparently will automatically grant clemency to inmates who meet the following criteria:
— They've already served at least 10 years in prison.
— They were sentenced under harsher drugs laws than are now in effect.
— They behaved themselves in prison.
— They have no history of violent behavior.
— They were convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses.
Those criteria are eminently reasonable. Indeed, they ought to be written into law rather than embraced by presidential whim.
"Correcting these sentences is simply a matter of fairness," said Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
He's right. But there is a proper way to do so in a nation built on the concept of the rule of law.
President Obama is, perhaps unwittingly, undermining the rule of law with his high-handed approach.
It's no secret President Obama resents the divided government on Capitol Hill, where Democrats control the Senate and Republicans control the House. He's made it clear on numerous occasions that he has no interest in working with the Congress as it's presently constituted and repeatedly declared that he intends to make his own policies on his own terms.
The temptation is understandable, and it's certainly quicker that way. But the Founding Fathers created the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government to be co-equals, each participating in its own important way.
When he took the oath of office, President Obama swore that he would "support, protect and defend" the U.S. Constitution and "faithfully execute" the laws as written. It's both unnecessary and unfortunate that he's abandoned that pledge in favor of a dangerously monarchical new approach that sets such dangerous precedents for the use and abuse of presidential power.