Since taking office on January 20th, President Donald Trump has issued 18 executive orders and presidential memos, unilaterally altering American foreign and domestic policies in place during the Obama administration. As Americans are bombarded with rapid and drastic changes in policy, those on both sides of the political spectrum are challenging his unchecked executive power. With each new order or memo signed, many have been wondering:
Who can stop him?
Executive orders are legal directives signed by the president instructing government agencies how to operate, holding much of the same power as federal law. Compared to laws passed by Congress, executive orders are limited in scope and are often short-lived and controversial, for only the president needs to approve them. According to the Congressional Research Service, “there is no definition of executive orders, presidential memoranda, or proclamations in the U.S. Constitution” as well as no “specific provision authorizing their issuance.”
Trump’s intense usage of executive orders and memos isn’t a new trend – every president since George Washington has issued them, despite the vagueness surrounding them in the Constitution. For example, FDR (who issued more executive orders than any other president) used them to pass many of his New Deal economic programs. However, executive order 9066, also passed by FDR, interned thousands of Japanese Americans during WWII, an act later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Today, executive orders are often used as unilateral moves to bypass resistant lawmakers in Congress. President Obama (who signed 277 executive orders during his two terms) faced a Republican held House since the 2010 midterm elections – congressional approval ratings during this time of divided government were incredibly low (less than 20%), and the president was often criticized for ‘not getting anything done.’ In a constant struggle with Congress, President Obama’s use of executive orders was seen by many as attempts to push his agenda while overriding congressional and bureaucratic hurdles.
Compared to the executive orders passed in the first weeks of the Obama presidency, Trump’s first orders are more impactful, and have been passed with little regard for the government agencies they affect. Virtually all of Trumps orders have come under fire thus far (most notably his “Muslim Ban”, which has already been temporarily suspended by a federal judge) and are being questioned in regards to their constitutionality.
In effect, there’s little anyone can do to stop what feels like a gross overstep of executive authority. Technically, Congress can pass a new law to override an executive order, but this is highly unrealistic; passing laws is a complex process requiring a majority of legislators to approve of them, and takes a substantial amount of time. With Republicans currently dominating both the House and the Senate, it doesn’t look like any laws overriding President Trump’s power will come into play any time soon.
With a Congressional block pretty much out of the picture, opponents can only turn to federal courts to find unconstitutional faults in his orders. Already, a legal battle over President Trump’s “Muslim Ban” has begun, and Trump himself doesn’t look like he’ll backing down from the long legal battle that’s sure to happen.