Obama and Bush have both come under serious fire in the past 14 years because of their use of executive orders. Agree or disagree with their motives, but it’s important to remember that the Constitution itself grants no such power to the president. Instead, presidents have used the act under the idea that it’s existence is implied by other wording in the Constitution. This does make some sense, but only as it applies to the context of the Constitution in which it’s read. For instance, the idea is that the president can issue directives – to his branch – to see that the laws passed by Congress are enforced. Basically, it’s because simply administrative and procedural processes don’t necessarily need the full power of a law to back them (simple example – directing an office to put Documents A in File Cabinet Y and Documents B in File Cabinet Z). People have limited time, so it’s prudent to make sure he has the power to say “spend more time on X, not Y,” for instance.
A good example is actually one of Obama’s most recent ones: EO13681 (Improving the Security of Consumer Financial Transactions). In theory, good executive orders are the ones you never hear about, because they can’t and shouldn’t affect citizens directly. In this case, Obama is telling the offices they need to make sure they’re using payment transaction processing with better security. That’s not something you need an act of Congress for. It’s just the President saying “we need to make sure we’re doing the best we can when taking money from people for things.” Easy.
I would argue that the current usage in the cases folks are up in arms about is far from the original intent, implied or not, however. The idea was that the president was in charge of seeing that laws were faithfully executed with respect to the Constitution. He was Chief Executive of the government, e.g. making sure things could be executed. Neat how those words – executive and execute – have the same root. He could be a mouthpiece, and he could raise issues when a passed law was being inconsistently enforced, for instance. Every president has done it, but Washington creating the presidential cabinet and directing enforcement of Native American treaties is pretty blasé business by comparison (fun fact, the term “executive order” didn’t come into use until 1862). But the idea that executive orders have the power to just “make law happen” is mostly just an invention sent to us by DC. And there are a troubling number of cases where this issue is crossing far too fine a line.
Regardless of the orders’ intent, it’s one more case where the water is muddied by politicians exercising power and authority they don’t really have when they should be more time adhering to the letter of the law, not pushing the envelope with what they can get away with. Even though you might agree with Obama’s intent and efforts via executive orders, look very carefully at exactly how those orders are crafted. And similarly, remember how up in arms you were with some of Bush’s executive orders. Or vice-versa if you’re Republican. You didn’t bat an eye while Bush Jr. issued order after order (To date, 51% more than Obama has ordered), but you’re fighting Obama tooth and nail over it. Maintain perspective, and hold them all to the same standard.
(Photo Credit: CC by 2.0 U.S. Army)