Executive Orders in the Trump presidency: a short introduction

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Since Donald Trump’s term as US President began in January his use of Executive Orders has been high profile and highly controversial. In this post Nigel Bowles explains what these are. He writes that the constraints upon their use are contestable, contested, and contingent, but that to be effective they must at a minimum be competently and intelligently drafted. Trump’s ‘immigration ban’ order fell short of this standard.

Whatever else President Trump might yet contribute to academic and popular understanding of the power of the United States presidency and the rule of law, he has already reminded the world that the occupant of his office has the institutional means to disrupt settled orders of public policy, to scorn norms established by predecessors, and to breach customary standards of presidential behavior. At the second and third of these three activities, President Trump excels. But his talents in these arts will not help him craft a productive presidency in a system of coordinate governing institutions. For that, he will need a sense of purpose, a feel for power, and a recognition that he is as obliged as any other citizen to comply with legal and regulatory requirements. Unless the President quickly comes to appreciate those qualities’ importance, the cost to his professional reputation within Washington and beyond is likely to be high. The first month and more of his noisy administration indicate that his standard mode of organisational leadership is caprice. That is no basis for government in any system, especially one such as that of the United States which sets high institutional barriers against those who show disdain for the customary rules of political coalition-building.

Despite his advantage in having Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate, the President has chosen not to engage on legislation with those majorities but instead to rely upon unilateral moves. He has spent precious capital on quotidian and querulous hectoring via his Twitter account, including using that platform to denounce public institutions and those committed to pursuing the public good for being the people’s ‘enemies’. Such behaviour might in the short-run please his political base, but is unlikely to advance his broader purposes (whatever they might prove to be).

A more established unilateral option is that of the issuing of Executive Orders, instruments of presidential authority with considerable potential effect. In issuing such orders, presidents have the opportunity to alter both policy content and the politics of that policy. Here, presidents can and may exploit the advantage of their office’s singularity. They can by their decisions do what individual senators, representatives, and federal judges cannot. They may, as Kenneth Mayer has written (pp. 4–5), change policy’s content and its administration, reorder executive branch agencies, and set out what they will and will not understand by those provisions that Congress writes into law.

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Will Congress be able to hold President Trump in check?

nigel-bowlesDonald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States in January, but will he actually be able to carry out his agenda? Nigel Bowles writes that he will largely be able to. In the areas of trade, security, taxation and judicial appointments Congress will struggle to constrain him under current law and politics. Changing immigration law and reforming the Affordable Care Act are likely to prove more challenging. Nonetheless, during the first year of the Trump presidency American politics is likely to give the appearance of being what it only rarely is: a presidential system. For better or for worse, President Trump really will be in charge.

The United States constitution is Madisonian in design and spirit. Separation of powers and federalism in combination are the structure against which, through which, and by which American politics plays out. Much else matters: party, ideology, public opinion, crises external and internal, leadership’s quality of imagination and purpose, especially. But the system’s architecture is Madisonian. It is not (not usually, at least) a presidential system. Instead, federal government comprises separate but coordinate institutions sharing in authority and in power. Article I of the US Constitution places Congress first in this separated Madisonian order. The symbolism of first place reflects Congress’s abundant richness in authority.

Yet Congress’s authority is limited by recurrent and systematic collective action problems. Those problems spring from Congress’s bicameralism, from its four-party organisation across the two chambers, and from its committee structure. They arise, too from electoral bases of legitimacy: from Senators’ identifications with state interests and cultures, from Representatives’ dependence upon their districts’ majority party voters and party activists for biennial re-election. The collective action problems are exacerbated in the early twenty-first century by ideologically distinct, and typically hostile, Congressional parties; and they are complicated by clashing personal ambitions of legislators. These constraints upon Congress’s authority in turn limit its political effectiveness and, accordingly, its collective capacity to bring about intended effects – in other words, its political power.

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