Tuesday, May 11, 2021
May 11, 2021

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In Our View: Executive orders reflect Congress’ irrelevance

The Columbian

The early days of the Biden presidency highlight a problem with the federal government. Executive orders have come to replace the act of legislating, giving excessive power to the executive branch and reflecting how Congress has abdicated its duty.

This is not the fault of Biden; nor is it a criticism of his first week in office. Rather, it is an opportunity to reflect upon how the system has gradually cracked and subsequently broken over the past several decades.

All recent presidents have used executive orders to push the agenda they were elected to enact. This is not ruling by fiat; executive orders are subject to judicial review. But those orders have grown to cover substantive policy decisions that often should be the purview of Congress.

In Biden’s case, most of the 30 executive orders he signed during his first 2 1/2 days in office were necessary and designed to reverse overreach promulgated by the Trump administration. But even for those who agree with Biden’s policies, the vast swing of the pendulum is exhausting.

In ordering this nation to rejoin the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accord, Biden signaled that the United States is rejoining the international community. He also signaled that international cooperation is essential for the health and security of Americans.

But the Paris Climate Accord is a prime example of policy that should require the approval of Congress. If policies are likely to result in regulations that govern our industry and economy, elected representatives should be the ones to make that decision.

Biden also rescinded the Trump administration’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline through the heart of the country. This reflects the whipsaw nature of executive orders; the pipeline had been rejected by the Obama administration, approved by the Trump administration, and now is rejected again.

The United States has had three presidents in the past 1,468 days, complete with two course changes in policy. Elections, indeed, have consequences, but the use of executive orders to define sweeping philosophical swings undermines the stability of our government and the faith of the public.

Prior to taking office, Biden said: “There’s some things that I’m going to be able to do by executive order. Executive authority that my progressive friends talk about is way beyond the bounds.” He also said, “I’ve spent most of my career arguing against the imperial presidency.”

We expect Biden, a firm believer in the legislative process and one not prone to impetuous decisions, to adhere to that mantra. But to ensure an effective federal branch of the government, Congress must reassert its authority.

Over the years, members have abdicated their authority for declaring war, writing the federal budget and issuing tariffs. And only two executive orders in the past 85 years have been wholly overturned. As columnist George Will of The Washington Post surmised last month, “The members who linger in a curdled Congress are the least admirable: They don’t care that they don’t matter.”

The danger of an imperial presidency was evident in the months following November’s election, with a defeated president feeling emboldened enough to try overturning the results of that election. A more competent autocrat might have succeeded, a threat that should awaken members of Congress to their constitutional duty.

They can start by taking a close look at executive orders.