by Liberty Anderson
Executive orders have the full force of law, since issuances are typically made in pursuance of certain Acts of Congress, some of which specifically delegate to the President some degree of discretionary power…
To date, U.S. courts have overturned only two executive orders: the Truman order, and a 1995 order issued by President Clinton that attempted to prevent the federal government from contracting with organizations that had strike-breakers on the payroll. Congress was able to overturn an executive order by passing legislation in conflict with it during the period of 1939 to 1983 until the Supreme Court ruled in Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha that the “legislative veto” represented “the exercise of legislative power” without “bicameral passage followed by presentment to the President.” The loss of the legislative veto has caused Congress to look for alternative measures to override executive orders such as refusing to approve funding necessary to carry out certain policy measures contained with the order or to legitimize policy mechanisms. In the former, the president retains the power to veto such a decision; however, the Congress may override a veto with a two-thirds majority to end an executive order. It has been argued that a Congressional override of an executive order is a nearly impossible event due to the supermajority vote required and the fact that such a vote leaves individual lawmakers very vulnerable to political criticism.
For many years, the average American was completely unaware of the existence of Executive Orders. They operated quietly in the background of government operation as ‘useful tools’ in the hands of a capable executive for the administration of his employees. Recent attention has been focused on Executive Orders because they no longer operate only on the employees of the administrative agencies of the Federal Government but on average citizens who perceive what appears to be an end-run around the Constitution. This paper will look at the evolution, or development of the Presidential Executive Order and attempt to place it, conceptually, within its constitutional boundaries. Obviously, the text of the Constitution will be the first source of authority to be examined. When the text of the Constitution is unclear or ambiguous, the next most authoritative source is in the writings of the founders themselves. Other sources in the hierarchy of probable reliability may be found in early Supreme Court decisions and works of legal scholarship by contemporaries of the framers.
Essentially, there are three different types of presidential proclamations that may have force of law: (1) those which are directed to the employees or agents of the executive branch; (2) those which result from specific authorizations of Congress; and (3) those in connection with his role as commander-in-chief. The latter are neither numbered nor published and are not considered Executive Orders within the context of this paper.
The first Presidential Executive Order was issued by George Washington in 1789, but no numbering system or uniformity was applied until 1907 when the Department of State retroactively designated an EO issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 as Executive Order 1. Certainly Lincoln used the Executive Order in some unique ways due to the Civil War and history has not judged him harshly for that discretion. By 1873, President U.S. Grant had established the form of the Executive Order which is similar to the one used today.
The American Civil War marked a turning point in American law and government. The realization dawned that American was not a land of inexhaustible natural resources, but rather, could be, and was being, stripped of its raw wealth by powerful interests. The role of government shifted from one of promoting exploitation and development to that of regulator and trustee. While this shift does not necessarily do injury to the Constitutional principle of “Balance of Powers,” it was a stepping-stone towards the degradation of the original notion of “balance” of powers. The much more pronounced shift towards Socialism emerged largely as a result of the Great Depression in the 1930’s when, “. . . [t]he concept became widely accepted at all levels of American life- ‘downtrodden masses’ as well as the educated elite- that it was desirable for the government to take care of its citizens and to protect them in their economic affairs.” It was within this time frame that the seeds of Socialism began to take root. Americans placed their confidence and hope in a “benevolent” government whose control of the marketplace might alleviate their economic woes.
“The revolutionary generation had been suspicious of any governmental power. The generation of the Gilded Age was still suspicious of imbalance of power. But significant segments of the public saw danger, not merely from one but from various sides: not only from government, but from populists, or trusts, or farmers, or the urban proletariat.” There is debate among scholars as to whether this shift was driven by an ideological agenda to change government or simply a natural response to the changing dynamics of national growth. To be sure, enterprising politicians read the handwriting on the wall and capitalized on the public sentiment.
“All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States Which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” Art. 1, §1 of the U.S. Constitution. Congress shall have the power. . .To make rules for the government. . .” Art. 1, § 8, para 14, U.S. Constitution Congress shall have the power. . . To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States or in any department or officer thereof.” Art. 1, § 8, para18, U.S. Constitution
From the foregoing, it is evident that the express language of the Constitution authorizes Congress to “make” the laws both “necessary” and “proper” to execute “all other powers” which are properly the domain of the federal government.
Article 1, § 9 contains a short list of restrictions which may be read to apply either to Congress, the President, or both. It follows immediately after the “necessary and proper” clause and immediately before Article 1, § 10 which specifically limits certain actions of the various states so it is obviously intended to place limitations on the federal power whether directly exercised by the branches or indirectly, through delegated authority.
Article II describes the authority of the Executive and a careful reading of this section is very illuminating. Given the clear description of the law-making process in article 1, we see the President’s role in that law-making process as having the veto power in order to force “marginal” laws to be more fully considered. The President does not have authority to “make” laws that are “necessary and proper for carrying into execution” the laws passed by Congress. That is the responsibility of Congress alone. The president is to carry out (execute) the laws within Constitutional limitations pertaining to ALL federal authority, NOT just the Executive branch. However, within the narrow language of the document, very little actual power is expressly granted to the President of the United States by the Constitution for peacetime, domestic administration of government. This is not meant to suggest that the President is a mere figurehead, for it was anticipated that he would be a man of considerable knowledge and influence. Additional powers may be inferred from the scope of diplomatic functions which fall upon the President. For example, his office meets with dignitaries and foreign heads of state and American foreign policy is principally his to formulate and carry out. His most important domestic functions, at least those functions to which the Constitution expressly alludes, are subject to “advice and consent” of the Senate. That phrase is designed to properly check the executive power. Otherwise, America would more closely resemble a monarchy; the very form of government our founders were trying to prevent. In any event, every exercise of authority by the president is subject to the oath of loyalty the president is required to utter, the language of which is specifically stated in Art.2, § 1, para 7.
No exact formula for defining the Presidential power is crystal clear from the Constitution itself and the conclusions drawn must rely on the context of the document and the extrinsic evidence. In the latter category, it is fortunate that we have preserved the original articles written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in which the arguments for, and against, the Constitution were discussed. One can do no better than to turn to the sources who helped write, or greatly influenced, the original document.
On the subject of federal authority, James Madison wrote, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce. . . The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State.”
But what if the Federal Government, under the guise of national emergency and with nothing but the pseudo-authority of Executive Orders, were to attempt to circumvent the Constitution? Who could imagine such a preposterous thing? Well, the likes of Patrick Henry, to name one, and other anti-Federalists of the day who raised the specter of such an event. Madison was incredulous at this paranoid assertion and responded to such a “hypothetical” situation by writing, “But ambitious encroachments of the federal government on the authority of the state governments would not excite the opposition of a single state, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm. Every government would espouse the common cause. . . Plans of resistance would be concerted.” Madison obviously thought the idea of a runaway federal government was ludicrous! Besides, he reasoned, the state militias are armed and ready to fight such an obvious act of tyranny. Not just one or two States, but ALL of them would certainly rise up with force of arms and resist! He rebuffed his detractors by saying, “[t]hat the governments and the people of the States should silently and patiently behold the gathering storm and continue to supply the materials until it should be prepared to burst on their own heads must appear to everyone more like the incoherent dreams of a delirious jealousy. . .than the sober apprehensions of genuine patriotism.”
The very idea that the entire federal government might act in concert to circumvent the Constitution was scarcely imaginable to James Madison. America had been born by the blood of the Patriots and the wounds of that great war could not be soon forgotten. The great cost of freedom from tyranny would be preserved by the careful dividing of the powers of government into such parts as may find themselves in tension with one another that only the most important national legislation could be passed. “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny”
Modern political commentators often argue that in today’s fast-paced political climate, where decisions of great magnitude must be made quickly, a more efficient mechanism is necessary. They argue the political process inherited from the founders is too cumbersome; the President needs more authority to deal with emergency situations. But order and efficiency must be balanced against liberty for the two concepts are frequently at cross-purposes. Madison, quoting Montesque, wrote, “There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates.” The mood in Colonial America was one of independence- not just political independence from King George and Parliament, but one of more fundamental individual liberty. While modern Americans profess that they also desire liberty, they are unwilling (or unable) to accept the economic, social, and political consequences of that liberty. Rather, special interest groups have exerted influence far beyond their numbers and have succeeded in circumventing Constitutional processes by judicial activism or Executive Orders.