In 2015, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas denounced then-President Barack Obama’s threatened use of an executive order to move prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to the United States.
“Why do we even have a Congress,” Roberts thundered, “if the president can issue an executive order on anything?”
It was an important question then and now.
Don’t expect Roberts to bring it up. He’s fine with executive orders now that President Donald Trump is in office. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri are similarly quiet on the whole abuse-of-power thing.
But their politics-as-usual hypocrisy should not distract Americans from this truth: Presidents in both parties are dangerously overusing their authority to issue orders that bypass Congress and voters.
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Obama’s defense was specific. “We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation,” he said three years ago. “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone. And I can use that pen to sign executive orders.”
That pen got a workout. Obama took executive action on overtime pay, environmental protection, health care, immigration, foreign policy, trade, gun control, abortion and other issues.
Obama actually issued fewer orders than Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. And he was a piker compared with President Franklin Roosevelt, who published thousands of orders.
But Obama used executive orders to enact dozens of controversial policies Congress refused to consider. His supporters applauded those orders, claiming they were the only way to govern in the face of a recalcitrant Congress.
There are two problems with the approach. What can be done with an order can be easily undone with another order. And Obama’s use of the executive order has encouraged Trump to use the same mechanism, making Congress more irrelevant than ever.
Trump’s executive order on immigrants and refugees has been roundly denounced and now faces legal challenges. Other orders on the border wall, the Keystone XL pipeline, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and investment counseling are controversial and something for Congress to consider — by voting.
Lawmakers have no one but themselves to blame. Congress has failed to address important issues such as immigration and trade. It has handed the executive branch wide authority to make up whatever rules it wants. Members of Congress wail when the opposition party controls the White House, yet purr like a kitten when friendly presidents use the pen.
It won’t be easy, but the legislative branch must begin to reclaim power usurped by presidents in both parties. Otherwise, voters will echo Roberts’ complaint and wonder why we have a Congress at all.