In politics, summer is known as the silly season – and nothing fills the bill better than John Boehner’s thigh-slapping promise to sue President Obama for his “king-like” behavior.
Later this month, the House Speaker supposedly plans to file a taxpayer-financed lawsuit upbraiding Obama for his “dangerous” executive orders. Maybe Boehner will follow through on his threat, maybe he won’t. Maybe he’s just fuming to gin up the GOP base for the November midterms; maybe he’s just trying to distract Americans from the long-established fact that his chamber is a sinkhole where governing goes to die. Or maybe he truly believes what he said other day, that if Obama is allowed to act “without involvement from the legislative branch, his successors will be able to do the same.”
I have to wonder: Did this guy, and his fellow partisans, ever crack a history book? Have they become so blinded by Obama hatred that they’ve lost all perspective?
According to the American Presidency Project, which is run by some of the nation’s top experts on executive power, Obama has issued fewer executive orders per year than any president since Grover Cleveland in the mid-1880s. Obama is averaging 33.58 orders per year – lower than Bush I, Bush II, Reagan, Nixon, Clinton, Carter, Ford, Johnson, Kennedy, and every other president from the 20th century. This chart shows it, too.
As presidential expert John Hudak, editor of the FixGov blog at the Brookings Institution, wrote recently, “Claims that President Obama is issuing more (orders) than his predecessors is just flat wrong – and continues to be a talking point completely at odds with real data….Like many criticisms of many presidents, policy disagreements stemming from presidential actions do not automatically make those actions illegal. Executive orders are no different. They are not an abuse of power, but a necessary presidential power critical to the function of government.”
Conservatives will predictably say, “OK, so maybe it’s true that Obama has issued fewer executive orders than his predecessors. But quantity isn’t the issue at all. What matters is the substantive policy stuff he’s doing, like on health care and immigration!” Or, as Karl Rove predictably bleated Sunday on Fox News, “This is imperial power. This is George III. This is some monarch to say ‘I am the law.'”
But you can randomly pick almost any recent president, and highlight the substantive policy stuff that was enacted via executive order. Harry Truman seized and nationalized America’s steel mills in 1952, during a destructive labor strike; he also signed an order to desegregate the armed forces. Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 signed an order to dispatch federal troops to Little Rock, Arkanas, to aid the school integration. Ronald Reagan bypassed Congress when he signed the executive order that empowered the National Security Agency to do what it does so thoroughly today.
Indeed, a Reagan domestic policy adviser made the case for “unliateral” presidential action: “With a hostile Congress that doesn’t show much sign of coming toward us on some of these issues, it behooves us to take the initiative when we can take it.”
Sound famliar? Here’s what Obama said yesterday, referring to Congress: “As long as they’re doing nothing, I’m not going to apologize for trying to do something.”
So when Boehner assailed Obama for exercising “king-like authority at the expense of the American people and their elected legislators,” he somehow forgot to mention that Reagan, his party’s saint, was at times a master practitioner of king-like authority. Or, just as likely, Boehner didn’t have a clue what Reagan did – because, after all, American history began when Obama took the oath in ’09.
And as for Karl Rove’s attempt to equate Obama with Britain’s George III (note the violent subliminal message: the colonists took up arms against George III)…whatever. It’s only Karl Rove.
Is it really even necessary to list his boss’ substantive executive orders? Like, for instance, the two Bush decrees that curbed federal funding for stem cell research? And the two Bush decrees that made it easier for religious groups to get federal money, and the subsequent decree that made it easier for federally-funded religious groups to evade anti-discrimination laws? And the order that gave blanket legal protection to American contractors in Iraq? And the order that makes it far tougher for historians to gain access to presidential records? And – oh, I almost forgot – the order that sanctioned warrantless NSA domestic eavesdropping on American citizens?
So when Boehner and his right-wing cheerleaders talk as if Obama is breaking new ground, bear in mind that they’re constrained by willfull amnesia and/or historical ignorance – as Obama well knows. Which is why he’s planning more executive orders, to end-run the do-nothing House; why is why he taunted Boehner yesterday when he said, “So sue me.”
Do it, Mr. Speaker. Give us a laugh during silly season.
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