Do you dislike executive orders? Congress must play its own part

Getty Images

While the latest election results may have been contested by some, we are today living through one of the most stable federal government exercises. This is the flurry of executive orders signed by the new president aimed at revoking the policies under the former administration of a different party.

The politics of executive orders can be unusual. These are often narrow changes to regulations made with the stroke of a pen, but they are often advertised as broad changes to federal practice. Sometimes they can be used to large effect, like the desegregation of the military forces by Harry Truman, or to devastation, like the internment of Japanese Americans by Franklin Roosevelt. Most of the time, however, they make small changes on how the federal government manages itself, even if they are billed by officials and pundits as a big deal to capture the news cycle of the day.

For a full generation now, the White House has shifted from party to party after the tenure of each president. This then leads to executive orders as one method to show daylight between the new president and the former administration, and to get things done fast without such messy business of waiting around for Congress to legislate. So President Biden has been at the resolute desk signing executive orders to counter policies from the previous administration. The same occurred when Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George Bush, and Bill Clinton each walked into the Oval Office.

With this activity comes the issue of legality. This tends to have a partisan undertone. I remember well from during my days on Capitol Hill when we complained about the more than 270 actions by Obama as “legislation by executive orders.” Many people who oppose the few dozen orders thus far from Biden may have supported the 220 orders from Trump and of course vice versa. Those who liked those more than 250 orders from Clinton may have been shocked at the more than 290 orders from Bush. It seems that everyone simply points the finger of executive overreach at each other.

The truth is that Congress allows this. By writing vague legislation and ceding authority to the executive branch, they hand presidents of both parties the ability to not only write these rules, but also to change them when they see fit. Take a look at almost any legislation passed in recent years. Whenever you see those words “the secretary shall” followed by instructions to create regulations, Congress is giving license to federal agencies to interpret the law and write its own rules, and to shift these with little oversight from the legislative branch unless the stars align.

Some of this comes from a lack of expertise within Congress to get far into the weeds on issues handled by federal agencies. For other cases, actually writing legislation in a vague way could make it easier to enact. Ultimately, Congress can be off the hook for how bills are implemented. But if you are not a fan of executive orders, it will take legislation that is specific and directive, and that is difficult to produce on Capitol Hill.

Aaron Jones is director of congressional relations at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a former staffer on Capitol Hill.

Tags America Congress Constitution Democracy Election Government President

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video