Use and abuse of executive power

Barron’s editorial page editor Thomas Donlan examines President Obama’s pledge to bypass a gridlocked Congress in order to meet his goals.

President Obama is having a bit of trouble with his relationship to the laws that Congress does and does not pass. Burdened these past three years with a divided Congress that can scarcely agree on the times of sunrise and sunset, the president and his aides spent the past few weeks dismissing the vital role of Congress and vowing to use executive orders to evade it.

As Obama said in his speech to Congress, “America does not stand still—and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

This is a potent-sounding executive pledge to voters who rate Congress as one of the most obnoxious American institutions. Fortunately for the Constitution, the nation, and Obama’s own place in history, a president usually can’t do much without legislation.

Even when he can, the record is mixed. President Harry S. Truman ordered desegregation of the U.S. military; President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the roundup and internment of Japanese-American citizens living on the West Coast.

Both of these and many other major executive orders of history were at least expediently related to the president’s power as commander in chief of the military. When decrees reach into economic policy, however, they are often neither necessary nor expedient. …

… Presidents naturally don’t want to imagine themselves hogtied by the Constitution. But when they make muscular pronouncements about executive power, they are likely to learn its limits. This feature of constitutional government is more important than any idea in any State of the Union address. It is both necessary and expedient in the defense of individual liberty.

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