The Hypocrisy Of Executive Orders

Executive orders are high theater for hypocrisy in American politics.
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Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Traffic laws cease to apply on the approach to Sullivan Square — a traffic circle on the northern edge of Boston that’s neither square nor circle. From the southeast, the single lane in becomes two (sometimes three) at rush hour. Cars entering from the west don’t yield but instead roll into the circle passive aggressively until traffic is forced to stop to avoid collision. The ramp from the highway is a showcase for the typical Bostonian disregard for turn-only lanes and red lights.

As mad as these tactics make me when I’m a law-abiding driver, I confess I have done them all in times of weakness, desperation and frustrated rebellion. Sometimes there’s no other way to get where you’re going in a reasonable amount of time. Plus, everyone else is doing it.

Monday’s Morning Edition exit interview with President Obama showcased similar sentiments. While the topics of the day (such as reports Russia tampered with the election and the future of the Democratic Party) were covered, the conversation focused a great deal on executive power.

The power of the Presidency has grown over the past few decades, and the trend continued under Obama. Opponents decried Obama’s use of executive orders to circumvent Congress as unconstitutional ― challenging some in court.

These executive orders are high theater for hypocrisy in American politics. Those who use them claim there was no other way, while the opposition argue they were circumvented in a travesty of democracy. When the tables turn, the roles reverse. Those who can now use executive orders forget their moral objections or cite a “they started it” precedent, while the other side cries foul conveniently forgetting their own culpability.

Case in point: Obama told NPR’s Steve Inskeep that he had no choice. He resorted to executive orders after he “bent over backwards” to find a bipartisan solution with Congress. Frustrated with the gridlock, he was forced to use a workaround. He wished he didn’t have to but he had things to accomplish.

The President used immigration as an example. After failing to pass a bipartisan immigration reform proposal, Obama used executive orders to protect illegal immigrants who entered the country before age 16 or were parents of legal residents. Republicans called those orders unconstitutional. In June, the Supreme Court issued a split-decision on a challenge to these actions, upholding a previous injunction against them.

Inskeep asked the President an important follow-up: should Trump use executive orders in the same way he had? Obama answered: “I think that he is entirely within his lawful power to do so.” He’s right, and that’s concerning.

Executive orders allow the President to do something without input from Congress. When it’s an action we support, we give little thought to how the Founding Fathers must feel as their hard work to avert tyranny is skirted. When it’s an action we disagree with, we peel the bells for the end of the Republic. The problem with executive orders is that they can be for good things (like Emancipation Proclamation) or bad things (like Japanese internment) — it’s up to the President.

Like Obama, Trump and the Republicans are pursuing their vision of immigration reform. During the campaign, Trump advocated banning Muslims from entering the country and called for the mass deportation of illegal immigrants in the United States.

Obama’s comments on NPR presaged the future. In the first two years, when he had the benefit of a Democratic House and Senate, Obama noted he didn’t have to use executive orders. He was able to get through most of what he wanted easily - as will Trump at the start of his term.

The other side of this point is critical: once the Democrats lost the legislature, executive orders became an essential tool for Obama. Similar to the GOP after Obama’s victories, the Democrats are putting their hopes in the next mid-term election. But, if they win back the Senate (and possibly the House), things might get worse.

Like the GOP with Obama, it’s reasonable to assume the Democrats will want to not give Trump any easy victories and block as many of his initiatives as possible. But, it’s also reasonable to assume that Trump will rely heavily on executive orders to get around them, just as Obama did. Without the moderating influence of the legislature, what can stop Trump’s more extreme ideas on immigration and other issues?

American politics isn’t broken solely because of big money, special interests, fake news, or poor voter turnout. It’s broken by the hypocritical “do as I say, not as I do” double standard that each party holds the other to.

Whether in traffic or politics, hypocrisy is an essential part of humanity. It’s how we can stomach breaking the rules when we think we have no choice, but assume others who do the same choose to be scofflaws. We had no choice but to block that nominee, issue that executive order, or turn right in the left-turn only lane. But you, you should be ashamed of yourself.

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