The Paradoxes of Presidential Power: A Brief History of Executive Orders

tags: executive orders, Trump

We’ve all seen the photo ops over the past few weeks: President Donald J. Trump sitting at his desk in the Oval Office, signing executive orders with a flourish, then proudly displaying his handiwork to the cameras. This flurry of controversial orders has given new attention to an old presidential practice. Earlier this month, the National History Center sponsored a briefing on Capitol Hill that examined the history of executive orders (EOs). Three leading authorities on the subject traced the evolution and exercise of this presidential power, placing the present moment in a context that offered both reassurance and concern.

George Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation of 1793 was arguably the first prominent EO, though Washington issued directives as early as 1789. The State Department gave the official designation of EO 1 to an 1862 directive by Abraham Lincoln. Since then, the formal count of EOs had reached 13,776 as of early February 2017, while tens of thousands of other, more mundane orders remain uncounted. Andrew Rudalevige, the Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government at Bowdoin College, pointed out in his presentation that EOs are just one type of executive actions: others include memoranda, directives, findings, and more. While the number of EOs has diminished as federal agencies have assumed responsibility for routine orders, they have at the same time become more substantive and significant. They serve four main purposes: to deliver direct orders or interpretations of law, to give guidance for future regulatory action, to structure governmental institutions or processes, and to make a political statement. EOs must be grounded in the president’s constitutional authority or power delegated by statute, though the limits of that authority are subject to interpretation, opening the door to clashes with other branches of government.

Presidents have often used national security to justify EOs, arguing that their role as commander in chief permits them to issue such orders. Matthew Dallek, a political historian in George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, focused his remarks on this aspect of the history of EOs. As wartime presidents, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt all issued sweeping orders that rested on national security claims. Most notorious of these is the case of Roosevelt’s EO 9066, which imposed the wartime internment of Japanese Americans. Harry Truman and his successors made national security arguments for EOs during the Cold War, issuing orders to establish federal loyalty tests, laying the foundations of the national security state, and more. Hot on the heels of the Cold War, the “war on terror” has provided a similar rationale for EOs issued by recent presidents. These orders often have come at the cost of civil liberties.

Other EOs, however, have contributed in important ways to advance civil rights, especially for African Americans and other peoples of color. ...

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