Executive Orders and the Facts

By Ben Thome

In the last two presidencies, there has been a lot of talk about executive orders. In the case of Bush (43), the Democrats decried his use of executive action hyping that he was over using it.  That rhetoric is even shriller today against Obama by the Republicans. In both they complained about over-stepping their authority with them, but that’s a much more complicated assessment and is definitely a matter of debate.  What about the sheer number of executive orders?  If Obama continues on at the same rate, he’ll rack up 265 executive orders by the time he leaves office.  That’s a lot of executive orders!  Or is it? How many executive orders is too many?  The more libertarian point of view would be zero where as the more authoritarian point of view would be far more than 265.

The only way to understand Obama’s potentially 265 executive orders is to compare him to other presidents.  These are hard, verifiable facts.  As of 1/20/16, Obama racked up 228 executive orders averaging 37 executive orders a year in his first term. Since he had about a year left, I added 37 to 228 to get 265.  It might be more or it might be less, but it’s a fair assessment.  Compare that to the Democrat’s transgressor of executive orders, Bush (43) and you will find that Bush issued 291 executive orders.  The nitpickers will say aha!  Bush (43) is worse than Obama.  But let’s be realistic, it’s basically the same amount.

So that means Bush (43) and Obama are both equally responsible for flouting the democratic process by excessively using executive orders, which makes sense since both sides were complaining during the respective presidencies.  Current Republican candidates for President are making hay with this topic and promising to take us back to the days of Ronald Reagan, a man who has reached near mythical stature in the Republican Party.   Clearly the use of 278 (the average of my number for Obama and the actual number for Bush) is aberrant and in Reagan’s time things were not like this.  Let’s face it, the facts would say you’re right…but not in the way you might expect.  Looking at the three presidents that took us to the end of the 20th century, we find a curious story. Clinton issued 364 executive orders, more than either Obama or Bush (43).  Bush (41) only issued 166 executive orders, but that’s not fair since he only had one term.  If he had two, it’s likely he would have had around 300 (presidents usually have less executive orders in their second term), still basically on par with Bush (43) and Obama.  What then about Reagan?  How does he match up?  Reagan beat them all by racking up 381 executive orders; over a hundred more than Obama.

So does this mean that around 300-320 executive orders is the right number? Again, that depends on the kind of government and the kind of presidency you want for the United States.  For the first hundred years or so of our nation, the presidency was very weak, much more like a figurehead (or a target for blame and derision).  During that period, executive orders were very rare.  Washington had 8 and Jefferson had 4.  John Adams, who was in his day often decried as a despot only issued one executive order.  Andrew Jackson really kicked it into high gear by issuing 12.  For the most part it stayed that level until Lincoln, who had to contend with this thing called the Civil War.  He spiked the count to 48.  However after the war, Reconstruction came about and the Presidents used it even more:  Johnson issued 79 and Grant issued 217.  After that, it hovered around 100 executive orders for a two-term president.

Then that answers the question, doesn’t it?  Our current 300 executive orders for a two-term president is three times as much as it was for the latter half of the 1800’s when presidents were still very weak figures.  Not exactly.  There is another period in US history that began with Theodore Roosevelt.  That period was the period of the strong president. Roosevelt redefined the presidency and issued just over 1,000 executive orders.  Taft’s one term had 724.  They were both Republicans.  On the Democrat side, Wilson followed Taft with 1,803.  This was now the new norm.  Even Herbert Hoover, who is often faulted for taking a hands-off approach to the beginning of the Great Depression, issued nearly 1,000 executive orders.  Unsurprisingly, Franklin Roosevelt beat them all with 3,721 executive orders (if he were a two term president the number would be approximately 2,500).  Since then, though there has been a sharp decline until we get to today, the lowest number of executive orders since William McKinley.

These figures don’t lie.  The number of executive orders is hardly aberrantly high; hardly aberrant at all.  Understand the truth.  The argument isn’t about Obama or Bush nor is it about Reagan or Clinton.  The question is how many executive orders is appropriate and more importantly the substance of those executive orders.  At the end of the day, it seems if you agree with the executive orders, there’s no abuse of power but if you don’t agree with them, there is an abuse of power.  A double standard if ever I saw one.

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