Executive Orders: A Long and Storied History

“Sic semper tyrannis.” Thus always to tyrants. Those were the words of John Wilkes Booth as he leapt to the stage from the president’s box after fatally shooting Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in 1865. Booth didn’t like Lincoln. Does that go without saying? One reason he thought Lincoln tyrannical was due to an executive order; the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln only issued 48 executive orders, but the proclamation was monolithic, causing many Southerners to agree with Booth. 

Thomas Jefferson was a small government, states rights guy. He only issued four executive orders, but one was a doozy. He took the bull by the horns and unilaterally spent 11,250,000 U.S. dollars plus canceling another $3,750,000 in French debt for an 1803 total of $15,000,000 ($237,000,000 translated to today). It was a pretty good deal, about three cents an acre (42¢ today) to double the size of the United States. But, none-the-less, the Louisiana Purchase was an executive order, bought and paid for before he took the deal to Congress to make the purchase a lasting decision. Beyond doubt, the stuff of tyrants and kings. 

President Obama has been called a tyrant, among other spiteful names, for issuing his cache of executive orders and various other presidential/leadership actions. To date, the president has issued 226 of the Oval Office offerings putting him in the ballpark, but still short of, George W. Bush’s 291 while he was in office. In fact, every other eight-year president has exceeded President Obama’s numbers back to Ulysses S. Grant and his 217 edicts. FDR is the champ with 3,522, but he had a long time to work on them. Tsar Dwight Eisenhower (484) and King Ronald Reagan (381) far out-issued our current reported monarch. 

The point is, contrary to the vituperative rhetoric aimed at our president, executive orders are legal and have become an integral part of government functions. There is no explicit sanction in the Constitution for executive orders. But, it has been accepted policy that Article II Section I gives the president implied powers. Every president, save William Henry Harrison who was only president for 32 days, has issued, at least a few executive orders. George Washington issued eight. It is folly to suggest that the president does not have this authority. 

Republican candidates for our highest office all seem to agree that when any of them get to sit behind the big desk, on the first day in office, through their own executive decree, all 200 plus of President Obama’s actions will be whitewashed off the books. That is entirely possible. The courts can also deem orders unconstitutional or without legal basis and erase them. That’s part of checks and balances.  

Executive orders were designed to be ephemeral if need be. Examples are FDR interning Japanese and German Americans and Truman nationalizing American steel mills. If executive orders work, Congress can etch them into law with actions on their part. If not, they can be easily eliminated or modified to work more efficiently. The XIII and XIV Amendments soon followed the Emancipation Proclamation and forever removed any doubt that its essence would stand as the law of the land. 

In the case of this president, he most certainly would have liked more action out of congress, but alas, it was not to be. The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill that secures the borders (Republican mantra), allows an arduous path to citizenship for the kids brought here illegally (Democratic buy in), and beefs up the E-Verify system making sure only legal workers are hired (both parties). Today, it languishes in the lap of the House of Representatives, and neither House majority leader will even bring the Senate bill up for discussion. It likely would pass with support from both parties–anathema to right-wingers. But, according to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) the problem is that it doesn’t secure the border. Did he read it? This is a classic example of “When I get my way, maybe we’ll consider your idea–much later. This is common playground conversation, but not so good for governing. We are in dire need of immigration reform, so, President Obama came to the rescue with executive action. 

A similar story exists with the president’s latest order, making sure every gun purchaser completes a background check and isn’t mentally ill, a criminal, or a terrorist. Many people go through a check to buy a gun from a store, why should there be loopholes? Who wants insane people buying guns? This is a rather small step, but somehow it translates into a challenge to the Second Amendment putting guns on an endangered species list. If background checks are okay for stores, why challenge checks over the Internet or at gun shows as a threat? I don’t get it. Once again, a compromised, vote sanctioned law out of Congress would have been preferable, but executive action, limited as it is, is much, much better than nothing. 

President Obama is not “acting like a king” as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) suggests. He is acting like a concerned American who holds the ability to ease the suffering and grief of fellow humans. If Congress won’t, then the president must.

 

Comments

  1. Mesquite Mike says:

    No one questions the President’s authority to issues executive orders; it needs to be done to run the country efficiently. It’s not the number of orders he issues, it the content that is in question.
    Contrary to your assertions that “we are in dire need of immigration reform” we are in need of the President enforcing our present laws whether he likes them or not. Instead of throwing life preservers to American society he throws anchors. It seems any law he doesn’t like, can be discarded even if it was lawfully passed by Congress and signed by a President. He doesn’t like guns so he writes his own law, not one Congress passed, but his own. He doesn’t get it; laws are passed by Congress and only confirmed by the president. No action by Congress is in fact saying no change has the consensus of Congress so the laws will stay the same, whether Obama likes it or not. Just because Congress didn’t agree to change present law, doesn’t give Obama the right to write his own new law.
    President Obama is “acting like a king” as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) suggests. If Congress won’t pass a new law, then the president can’t issue one. That what kings do, make their own laws.

    • Terry Donnelly says:

      Mike, You start out fine, but apparently you don’t really think executive action is legal, unless you agree with the content.

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