While the Constitution’s system of checks and balances often breaks down, giving the White House too much power (see here and here), recent action by California reflects the important role that the states play in containing presidential action.

As the New York Times recently reported, California has reached agreements with some of the major automakers to reject a Trump Administration relaxation of fuel economy standards. Instead, the companies will adhere to the kind of strict auto emission standards that the Obama Administration adopted in 2012. Under the 2012 federal standards, automakers would need to achieve an average fuel economy for new cars and trucks of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The Trump Administration announced plans last year to reduce fuel economy requirements to 37 miles per gallon.

Of course, the checks and balances provided by the states (“federalism”) can cut both ways. Here, California is acting to preserve a federal policy that will address the problem of climate change. Other states have tried to block federal policies that address other important needs, as with the lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act.

Still, as the Framers of the Constitution recognized, we’re better off overall when Presidents cannot take unilateral action. An unrestrained executive can do considerable damage to the country.

Photo of David Orentlicher David Orentlicher

David Orentlicher is the Cobeaga Law Firm Professor of Law at UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law. Nationally recognized for his expertise in constitutional law and health law, Dr. O has testified before Congress, had his scholarship cited by the U.S. Supreme…

David Orentlicher is the Cobeaga Law Firm Professor of Law at UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law. Nationally recognized for his expertise in constitutional law and health law, Dr. O has testified before Congress, had his scholarship cited by the U.S. Supreme Court, and has served on many national, state, and local commissions.

A graduate of Harvard Medical School and Harvard Law School, Dr. O is author of numerous books, articles, and essays on a wide range of topics, including presidential power, affirmative action, health care reform, physician aid in dying, and reproductive decisions. Dr. O’s work has appeared in leading professional journals, as well as in the New York TimesTimeUSA TodayCNN Opinion, the Chicago Tribune, and other major newspapers.

Between 2002 and 2008, Dr. O served in the Indiana House of Representatives, where he authored legislation to promote job creation, protect children from abuse and neglect, and make health care coverage more affordable. His most recent book, Two Presidents Are Better Than One: The Case for a Bipartisan Executive, draws on his experience with partisan conflict as an elected official and his expertise in constitutional law to discuss reforms that would address the country’s high levels of political polarization.