Should the president use executive orders to bypass Congress?
January 29, 2014
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
This week, with a still high unemployment rate and a fragile economy, President Obama asked in his State of the Union address that Congress join him in his “year of action” to address wage inequalities for women, strengthen the job market, streamline government bureaucracy, rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and recalibrate the tax code so that it is more equitable.
“What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” Obama said. “Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither will I.”
But relations between the president and Congress have always been tense, and it is unlikely that the lawmakers are going to jump at the president’s call to action. Should the president use executive actions to move his agenda forward if Congress does not act as he wishes?
Executive orders are legal directives from the president that establish policy, often in executive branch agencies. Executive orders have the same force as laws when Congress grants the executive branch discretionary authority in a particular field or when Congress creates an executive agency. The Supreme Court has ruled that executive orders cannot create laws, but they can be used to clarify vague language in existing laws.
For example, the Environmental Protection Agency was given discretionary authority to regulate air pollution, but it did not give the specific parameters on what amount is acceptable. That was left to the executive branch, which sets the limits. Congress can also set policy by passing laws, but since the EPA is an executive agency, the president has considerable influence.
The president’s executive authority does have quite a few limits. He can’t raise the national minimum wage, he can’t overhaul immigration policies or Social Security, and he can’t even make the smallest tweaks to his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.
Before the State of the Union, Obama indicated that he was willing to use executive orders to accomplish his agenda, even if that meant bypassing Congress. He said that he would use an executive order to increase the minimum wage paid by federal contractors. Although, compared with past administrations, he has signed a relatively low number of executive orders.
Many in Congress have cried foul, but President Obama’s supporters say that while the president would like to go work with Congress, lawmakers’ unwillingness to compromise or pass laws has left him with no other option.
“There is nothing like legislation,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff. “But given the challenges that are mounting, the country cannot afford Congress to go M.I.A.”
Others argue that the president is overstepping his constitutional limits and is acting without regard to the balance of power. “We’re going to watch very closely because there’s a Constitution that we all take an oath to, including him, and following that Constitution is the basis for our republic and we shouldn’t put that in jeopardy,” House Speaker John A. Boehner said before the State of the Union address.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) told PBS’s NewsHour that the president is exceeding his authority by sidestepping Congress. “That’s giving up on the Congress, but more importantly, it’s giving up on the Constitution,” Blunt said. “The president needs to lead us out of this, rather than to be the person who says, nothing can be done about this, so I'm just going to do what I can do by myself.”
Some past executive orders have achieved major change, including the Emancipation Proclamation and President Harry Truman’s order to desegregate the military.
What do you think?
Should the president use executive orders to get his initiatives enacted? Should the president try to work with Congress first? Is the president overreaching his authority by taking unilateral action? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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