Ever since she first announced she was running, California Sen. Kamala Harris has said when she becomes president, if Congress won’t act on proposals that she supports, she will rule on her own.
In an April 22 CNN Town Hall, for example, she said, “Upon being elected, I will give the United States Congress 100 days to get their act together, and have the courage to pass reasonable gun safety laws. And if they fail to do it, then I will take executive action.
“And specifically, what I would do is put in place a requirement that for anyone who sells more than five guns per year, they are required to do background checks when they sell those guns. I will require that for any gun dealer that breaks the law, the ATF will take their license.”
Then, in the first Democratic presidential debate 10 days ago, Harris went all in. She isn’t going to wait for Congress to muddle around like it usually does. “I will immediately, by executive action, reinstate DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status and DACA protection to those young people,” she said. “I will further extend protection for deferral of deportation for their parents and for veterans.”
If one doesn’t care about due process or the U.S. Constitution, perhaps those seem like good solutions.
Not to be outdone, on June 18, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar outlined 134 actions she will take in her first 100 days. Klobuchar said in a release, “After four years of Donald Trump, a new president can’t wait for a bunch of congressional hearings to act.”
If the moderators wanted to ask serious questions of the two dozen Democrats running for president, the next time they meet, they may want to start by asking, “What role do you see Congress playing while you are president?”
The difference between Klobuchar’s 134 actions and Harris’ announcements is that many of Klobuchar’s proposals don’t require funding from the U.S. Treasury — which heretofore required congressional approval. And some of her ideas, such as “Rebuild our relationship with our allies” aren’t so much policies as intentions, not requiring an executive order.
Still, she plans to restore staffing levels in various federal agencies as well as expand funding for programs such as veterans’ telehealth services and senior fraud prevention, none of which can be done constitutionally without Congressional approval of funding.
She will also get us back into the International Climate Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, which are essentially treaties, requiring U.S. Senate approval. Admittedly, she would not be the first president to ignore the Senate in this regard. Trump also ruled unilaterally in removing us from both.
If one goes back in time, one can see through the use of executive “orders,” how the federal government has strayed from the balance of powers set up by the Founding Fathers.
For the first 65 years after the Constitution was adopted, no president issued more than five executive orders per year. President Franklin Pierce, who served from 1853 to 1857, hit a new high of 8.8 per year. Two presidents later, Abraham Lincoln became the first president to break double digits, averaging 11.7 executive orders per year, including the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in those states then in rebellion.
After that, the number of executive orders continued to grow. Theodore Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 to 1909, was the first to break the hundred mark, averaging 144.7 per year, more than triple that of his predecessor, William McKinley.
The use of executive orders reached its peak under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who issued 307.8 per year during his 12 years in office, beginning with a bank holiday and prohibiting the hoarding of gold.
Gradually, the practice declined. Harry Truman, who served from 1945 to 1953, was the last president to average more than 100 executive orders per year. Since then, Jimmy Carter has averaged the most, 80 per year.
Democrats have been upset with Donald Trump’s use of executive orders, particularly his ban on immigration from seven nations. Trump is averaging 46.9 per year, the most since Ronald Reagan, but still within the normal range since World War II.
Republicans will be surprised to learn that Barack Obama averaged only 34.6 executive orders per year, the lowest average since Grover Cleveland, 120 years before. However, a big difference exists between executive “orders” and executive “actions,” and it was Obama’s executive “actions” that upset the GOP. From targeting the Tea Party for tax audits to delaying implementation of parts of the Affordable Care Act, Obama enforced the laws of the land selectively.
The root of the problem is that we no longer elect people to Congress who can negotiate or persuade. Courage is in short supply on Capitol Hill. Instead, we are electing too many partisan extremists from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on the right to Minneapolis Rep. Ilhan Omar on the left. As a result, little of substance gets accomplished and difficult issues are left to and then blamed on the president.
No one should be surprised then that presidents and congressional leaders get frustrated. However, until the Congress reasserts its constitutional powers over the executive, we will continue to drift ever more closely to dictatorship.
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.