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Biden’s Executive Order Overreach May Not Endure

Posted on Friday, March 19, 2021
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by Outside Contributor
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In a December 2007 Boston Globe interview, Barack Obama alleged that the Bush Administration had habitually disregarded Congressional authority in favor of executive overreach, and promised a reversal under his administration.  “A president is not above the law,” he pontificated.

As president, however, he infamously sang a very different tune.

“We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need,” he said.  “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.”

Joe Biden’s executive unilateralism to date, however, would make even Obama blush.

Entering this week, Biden had already signed 34 executive orders – twice as many as Obama’s 17 at this point in his own overactive presidency.  In contrast, President Trump had only signed 16 executive orders, and George W. Bush only 8.

Moreover, Trump also demonstrated greater fidelity to the legislative process that Obama and Biden claimed to treasure, signing 8 bills passed by Congress at this point in his presidency.  Joe Biden?  Only 1.  And Barack Obama?  Just 7.

Some fascist, that Donald Trump.

As dean of American politics Michael Barone laments, this process is antidemocratic, polarizing and fosters instability:

It bypasses the deliberation, compromise, and consensus-building that are inherent to legislating…  Each new president now commences his term by signing orders to undo much of what his predecessor leaves behind.  The fixation on executive orders contributes to a zero-sum mindset in American politics, with each party determined not merely to advance its political agenda but also to eradicate the agenda of the other party…  Executive orders are canceled as easily as they were created.  Shifts in policy prove ephemeral.  

On a promising note, early signs suggest that the American public shares Barone’s concern.

According to a new survey from Harvard University and Harris Insights and Analytics, a majority of respondents disapproves of many of Biden’s most notable executive orders.  Specifically, 53% disapprove of Biden’s order halting the Keystone XL pipeline, 50% disapprove of his order repealing President Trump’s travel ban with rogue terrorist nations, 55% disapprove of his order curtailing deportations of illegal immigrants and 55% disagree with his order mandating that schools permit biological males who identify as female to participate in female sports.

Even more gravely, Biden may also soon discover a judicial branch far less tolerant of executive orders and administrative state fiat than in previous years.

With three Trump-nominated justices forming a 6-to-3 conservative Supreme Court majority, as well as 230 other appellate and district court judges confirmed during the Trump presidency, the days of broad judicial deference may be numbered.

At issue is what’s known as “Chevron Deference,” named for the Supreme Court’s decision in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. (1984).  Stated simply, Chevron Deference holds that the judicial branch should defer to executive branch construction of Congressional statutes as made by administrative agencies empowered to enforce those statutes, so long as those constructions aren’t clearly unreasonable or contrary to clear Congressional intent.

Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh have openly questioned the legitimacy of that doctrine, as has Chief Justice John Roberts.  Additionally, Justice Clarence Thomas openly argued in Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency (2015) that Chevron Deference is unconstitutional and subject to reconsideration.

While the views of Justices Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett remain less clear, there’s now likely a conservative majority that believes presidents and executive branch agencies aren’t empowered to behave with as much latitude as they have in recent decades.

That emerging conservative judicial consensus accords with Constitutional text and our Founding Fathers’ intent.  Article I of the Constitution states that “All legislative powers shall be vested in a Congress of the United States,” not the executive branch.  Congress is empowered to make laws, while the president is empowered to enforce laws, not make them.

Although recent decades have witnessed an unfortunate degree of delegation of legislative authority from Congress to the president, and a dubious degree of deference from the judicial branch, Joe Biden may endure a rude awakening that times have changed.

Between popular sentiment and growing judicial skepticism toward the doctrine of Chevron Deference, America will be better off if Obama’s “pen and phone” brand of executive overreach meets its overdue end.

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