Speaker of the House John Boehner announced his intention last week to sue President Barack Obama over Obama’s use of executive power. Nearly every president since George Washington has issued executive orders, legally binding directives issued by the President as the head of the Executive Branch, but Boehner and other conservatives believe Obama has overstepped his authority.
Has Obama really signed more orders than other presidents, and have they gone beyond the typical bounds of past presidents’ orders?
Presidents’ powers curtailed in the 1950s
Executive orders vary in content and can range from the benign, such as when an order gives federal workers Christmas Eve off, to the destructive, as when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 led to the internment of 122,000 U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry during World War II.
Congress does not approve or vote on executive orders but can challenge them; the courts can also oppose executive orders. The most famous instance of the latter surrounded an executive order by President Harry Truman during the Korean War, directing the federal government to seize steel mills. The mills’ owners sued and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually found the executive order to be unconstitutional.
The decision set the precedent for stricter limits on U.S. presidents’ authority. Generally speaking, presidents are expected to issue orders that do not make new law, but instead are compatible with existing laws.
From zero to 3,522
Executive orders were not numbered or recorded in any standard way for the first century of U.S. history, though presidents from George Washington on have issued them.
William Henry Harrison, who died from pneumonia after just 31 days in office, has the fewest executive orders to his name, with zero. Presidents John Adams, James Madison and James Monroe each issued one order. The record for the most executive orders goes to Franklin D. Roosevelt with 3,522. Even taking into account his extended 12-year term, Roosevelt signed the most by far. Other early 20th century presidents also had high numbers: Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge each signed over 1,000 orders.
The trend in the last 50 or 60 years has been a decrease in the number of executive orders issued by each president. President Obama, with two and a half years left in his term, has so far signed 182, fewer than other recent two-term presidents: George W. Bush issued 291, Bill Clinton issued 264 and Ronald Reagan issued 381.
Obama ‘can’t wait’ to sign executive orders
The objection to Obama’s executive orders has not been about the number of orders so much as the content. Opponents like Boehner believe the President is trying to sidestep Congress, and that’s not entirely incorrect.
“We Can’t Wait” is the name of the Administration’s policy of using executive power to take action on issues where Congress cannot or will not move forward. Issues addressed by this executive order policy include everything from improving fuel efficiency in cars to finding summer jobs for young people.
Boehner listed the actions he plans to address in the lawsuit, including a 2012 order preventing the deportation of children of illegal immigrants and a more recent order to regulate power plants’ carbon emissions. Obama also upset supporters of gun rights when he signed 23 executive orders in January 2013, following the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.
This week, the President again defended his position of taking action when Congress has not, dismissing the threat of lawsuit. If Boehner does proceed with the lawsuit, it will likely take a long time and affect Obama’s successor more than Obama.