I was watching the news last Monday, and perhaps I was just a little groggy from a medical procedure, so I didn’t switch the channel right away as I was enlightened by the in-depth analysis of the MSNBC talking heads who said President Obama has used executive orders (EO) far less than previous Presidents. I assume this was in anticipation to the State of Union Address where he and his staff had let it be known that he will act unilaterally if the Congress fails to bend to his will. It got me to wondering was that true? It turns out it is, kind of.
While the press is making a big deal out of the EO thing, it should be understood that they are generally focused on the running of the administration, guidance on how policy is to be formulated and execution of treaty obligations. The EO, as a tool of the President, really came into its own with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his 12 years as President FDR issued over 3,500 orders ranging everywhere from the appointment of Indian agents (EO 6360) to the creation of the Electric Home and Farm Authority (EO 6514), a subset of the Tennessee Valley Authority. I assume he did so because it was so much easier than working with a contrarian Congress, or because the issue was so mundane as to not need Congressional consent.
So back to our current and recent Presidents, compared to both previous Democrat and Republican Presidents, going back to George Bush, President Obama has issued only 147 EO in his first term, compared to 200 for President Clinton and around 170 each for both the Bush’s. So far in his second term he has issued 21, but what does that really mean? I doubt it means a darn thing.
The influence and impact of EO’s can be huge, but on the average -- issues are trivial, or agenda influenced, and their true economic impacts will ultimately be small since they don’t carry the weight of law to enforce them, except within the Executive Branch. For example, President Obama’s EO 13652, establishes a Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience that will supposedly "coordinate government policy across all the local, state, and federal agencies to identify and remove barriers that discourage investments or other actions…reform policies that may, perhaps unintentionally, increase vulnerability…identify areas to support and encourage smarter, more climate-resilient investments by States, local communities…(and) report their progress." Does anyone really believe we will see a real change in the nation's approach to energy and the environment from this new body?
So what does the threat of creating Executive Orders really accomplish? It does little more than continue the confrontational, “it must be my way” approach to leading this nation we have seen in the first six years of the Presidency. I believe at the end of the day they will have a negligible impact on the nation’s long-term economic prosperity and security, or even successfully address the issues the President wants to address. They will be metered out to support the political agenda without debate and compromise, and they will last only so long as the next President wishes them to. Most will remain symbolic, and although there is a rare chance something brilliant could be accomplished, I am not optimistic; for if that were a potential surely we would have seen this leadership team roll that brilliant idea out by now. What we can be sure of is they will add bureaucracy to an already bureaucratic executive, reduce transparency on an already opaque administration, and increase the cost of government without accountability.