Vice President Joe Biden recently said that President Obama could use executive orders to advance gun control measures. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have both said they would support President Obama if he overrode the debt ceiling by executive order.
Should this be cause for concern? Absolutely. It goes against the basic founding principles of the US Constitution. Our founding fathers separated legislative, executive, and judicial power into three separate branches of government to make it harder for one man to abuse power. The legislative branch (Congress) has the power to write the law, the executive branch has the power to enforce the law as written by Congress, and the judicial branch has the power to interpret the law. The president does not have the power to change laws without Congressional approval, and that is by design. Giving that much power to one man would be a mistake that would threaten the personal liberty of every American, which is why the Constitution does not allow it.
President Obama has consistently flouted the limitations placed on his office by the Constitution with illegal “recess” appointments when Congress is in session, failing to get Congressional authorization for the military action in Libya, effectively implementing the DREAM Act by executive order even though it failed to pass Congress. Obama thinks that if Congress won’t give him what he wants, he has the power to make the law himself.
The truly disturbing thing about all of this, however, is that President Obama did not come up with this idea. The abuse of executive power is a long and bipartisan tradition. President Bush authorized illegal warrantless NSA surveillance by executive order. FDR made illegal seizures of gold and illegally interned Japanese Americans in camps by executive order. In 1952, The Supreme Court ruled in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer that presidents cannot use executive power except where authorized by the Constitution or by legislation passed by Congress because of overreaches made by President Truman in dealing with a steel strike. The fact that presidents of both parties have abused their power by executive order, however, does not make Obama’s choice to do so right, legal, or constitutional.
Right now Republicans cry foul over Obama’s overreaching of executive power; when there is a Republican in the White House the Democrats do the same. What is needed isn’t more partisan bickering but a commitment to the basic principles of our Constitution. There is a separation of powers. Presidents don’t get to dictate the law. When Congress doesn’t give a president what he wants, he has the right to take his case to the public and try to get them to influence their legislators. He does not have the right to circumvent the Constitution by making his own laws with the stroke of a pen.