The number of presidential executive orders per year has reached a record high since Jimmy Carter’s presidency. An executive order, as explained by the American Bar Association, is a “signed, written, and published directive from the President of the United States that manages operations of the federal government.” Most importantly, an executive order does not need to be approved by congress, and the most common and easiest way to reverse an executive order is for a succeeding president to place another one. This incredible power undermines the checks and balances which are an integral part to a healthy, functioning democracy. It can take years to pass legislation through congress, so the efficacy of executive orders is appealing. While the reasoning is understandable, the consistently increasing number of executive orders per president has gone up tremendously which, in turn, is posing a threat to American democracy.
Over the past three presidencies, each president has raised the average number of executive orders by twenty; Obama averaged thirty-five per year, Trump averaged fifty-five per year, and in his first year in office, Biden has executed seventy-nine executive orders. Democracies are built upon a few key ideals, one of which is the enactment of checks and balances in the government in order to prevent excessive executive power. Executive orders exemplify the exact opposite. When Biden took office, he enacted thirty executive orders in his first three days. One third of these were reversals of orders placed by former president Trump.
While the differences in political ideologies between presidents Trump and Biden are inherently obvious, the immediate reversals of a previous president’s executive orders creates a polarized environment. These reversals exemplify the most notable differences between political opponents, and since they are enacted so quickly, it gives an immediate reason to dislike the new president. The deep polarization of a country is yet another push toward democratic erosion. A country with an “Us vs. Them” mindset leads to a lack of discourse as no one wishes to hear the other side, and, as Jennifer Mercieca stated, bad argumentation and polarizing propaganda lead to a demagogic culture. Communication and the act of working together are essential in any democracy. When a president overpasses the need for a group effort in passing legislation, he creates his own regime, one ignoring the general public.
Demagogues are known for avoiding conversational and rational debates. Executive orders create a path around the need for people to defend their ideas. When a bill is going through congress, it is debated and discussed for a length of time with hundreds of people, each possessing drastically different backgrounds and ideals. Executive orders, however, are decided by one sole person and are put into action instantly. As previously stated, president Biden enacted ten orders per day during his first few days in office, all of which went undebated.
Since presidents are the only ones with the power in this case, the orders that presidents decide to enact gives them both a plethora of content supporters and furious opposers. So, while executive orders may be seen initially as an essential way to get things moving in Washington, the downsides outweigh the positives. This is not to argue that executive orders should be canceled, however, the free limit on a president’s power must be checked. A simple way to limit the executive power would be to put a limit on the number of executive orders that can be enacted per presidency or per year in order to avoid another president enacting over three thousand as former president Roosevelt did.
If this pattern continues, which it likely will, it will eventually seem pointless to have bills begin at congress. Since congress and the supreme court technically possess the power needed to override executive orders, why would a president not do all they can until congress eventually stops them? This process for congress is lengthy; they would have to pass a bill that blocks the order, but even then, the president can veto that bill which would then require congress to override that veto to pass the bill. This process is far too complicated as a mere 7.1% of presidential vetoes have been overridden since George Washington’s presidency. This creates a window far too wide for presidents to abuse their power.
Dan Pfeiffer’s tweet, “This Wall Executive Order is bogus. If you could build infrastructure with a pen, Obama would have rebuilt every road and bridge in America,” explains this situation well. He references Trump’s executive order to begin the construction of the U.S.-Mexico wall which Biden later overturned. Pfeiffer exemplifies the facility of enacting a presidential order, and he explains the power that Obama, or any president, possesses and the incredible legislature they can enact sans question. While this tweet was sent with a comical undertone, he states a problem that must be addressed in the U.S. Presidents should not be able to use this much power at such a frequent rate, and their ability to do so poses a threat to U.S. democracy.
While I do agree that the increased use of executive orders in recent years is a sign of democratic erosion in the United States, I disagree that the solution is to simply put a cap on the number of executive orders. The increased use of executive orders in recent years has gone hand in hand with the increased deadlock in Congress, and to try to eliminate one side of the problem without considering the other could tip the balance towards greater governmental inaction. Instead, I believe that both congressional deadlock and the increased use of executive orders represent the breaking of historical norms. The solution to these broken norms is not necessarily to entrench them in stone, but to make voters more aware of when their politicians break norms and attempt to restore the pre-polarized polity.