The United States is a nation of laws. We hear that statement a lot, usually when people complain about actions or policies they think compromise our goals for an orderly society. President Donald Trump frequently uses the phrase, or its parallel “No one is above the law” repeatedly, often with regard to his efforts to reduce illegal immigration.
However, the president’s own penchant for governing through executive order violates our country’s established process for enacting laws — a process prescribed in our Constitution.
That recipe for governance mandates that legislation be enacted by our members of Congress, who are elected by and thus answerable to the voting citizenry. Increasingly, however, presidents have been using executive orders to enact policies or issue mandates that should be handled through legislation.
President Trump is hardly the first to issue executive orders; in fact every president, including George Washington, has issued at least one, with the exception of William Harrison, who died one month after taking office. Trump so far has issued more than 85 executive orders, a pace that would total nearly 200 by the end of his first term if he keeps it up. President Barack Obama issued 276 such orders and George W. Bush 291 during their respective eight-year terms.
Traditionally most orders, at least during peacetime, are to declare federal holidays or to order flags flown at half staff in response to a national tragedy. Presidential orders have spiked during wartime as presidents have ordered rations of certain goods or asked families to plant “victory gardens.”
Franklin Roosevelt issued more than 3,500 executive orders during his three-and-a-half terms that included recovery from the Great Depression and World War II.
Those were times of national emergency, and in many cases Congress authorized or supported the presidential decrees. That’s how it should be, and it’s what’s missing from current presidential orders. Lawmakers are expected to either sanction or enact legislation voiding any executive order.
Trump’s orders include the recent deployment of active military troops to our southern border and imposition of criminal procedures at U.S. immigration courts. He also has threatened to cancel all asylum procedures and eliminate automatic citizenship for people born in this country.
Such orders have alarmed many Americans, and they should; they clearly go beyond the expected norm for presidential authority. But Trump isn’t the first to do so. Provocation of military combat and other orders — including Obama’s attempts at immigration reform — should be addressed in the chambers of Congress.
Unfortunately, as Obama suggested when he signed those immigration orders, he was motivated by Congress’ refusal to take up the issue. With regard to many of our country’s key issues, our lawmakers have simply not done their jobs, and even abdicated their responsibility to offer legislation addressing them.
We hope the legislators who were elected Tuesday, whether new or incumbents, appreciate the American people’s growing opposition to government by presidential fiat. We hope they head to Washington dedicated to reversing the trend of one-person rule, and returning the practice of governance where it belongs — the halls of Congress.