President Obama has been signing quite a large number of executive orders recently, many of them intended to accomplish the same goals as bills that are presently languishing in the various houses of Congress. The orders broadly fall under the theme of “we can’t wait”, and I don’t have any serious complaint with the policies themselves. I am, however, pessimistic about what this means for our democracy.
Part of what I dislike is evident from the title. The spirit of the American system is for the President to handle the details of policy, with the policies themselves being set by Congress. The policies being altered here have been chosen specifically because Congress has failed to follow through on an expressed intention to act. For the President to enact pending legislation by executive fiat subverts the intent of our governmental system, and smacks of dictatorial authority. The past decade has seen an unprecedented concentration of power in the government broadly and the executive specifically. Part of Obama’s appeal was his promise to reverse this encroachment of executive authority, yet here he is embracing it.
Another reason to be pessimistic is that it seems we really can’t wait for Congress to act. The past few years have seen an escalating amount of incredibly stupid brinksmanship in the midst of crisis, driven by voices that refuse to accept any kind of compromise whatsoever. This behavior is driven by rhetoric and ethos that views winning control of the government as more important than actually governing. To this end various candidates for President and sitting legislators have engaged in ridiculous rhetoric like threatening the Fed not to take major steps to improve the economy prior to the next election. As economic growth stagnates, these men threaten a government agency not to do its job lest the country have too good an economy for them to defeat the sitting Democratic president. This attitude only makes sense if one desires power for oneself more than prosperity for others.
The executive orders threaten to enable this mindset. When the executive takes over the functions of the legislature, they are relieved of responsibility and therefore free to bicker as much as they like. Obama seemingly intends to put pressure on Republicans, and his choice to go over Congress’ head may play well with the electorate. However, it is likely to take pressure off of Congress because nobody will now be pressing their legislators on these matters, even if real legislation is necessary. Moreover, the increasing power of the executive promises to worsen the brinksmanship problem.
The “we can’t wait” campaign may be well-intentioned and certainly seems to be smart politics. All the same, I’m quite concerned that it represents a transfer of power from an ineffective legislature to an unchecked executive. Perhaps this does not strike Obama’s supporters as a serious problem. One wonders whether they would feel the same way if the President were Rick Perry.