There's a new president in office, and millions of Democrats and liberals are watching him eagerly. Watching as, with a stroke of a pen, he signs the long-suffering Family Leave Bill. Watching as, with a wave of his arm, he lifts the ban on gays in the military or restores rights to abortion counseling in federally funded clinics. President Clinton is clearing out so much of the last 12 years' dirty laundry that you have to wonder what else he could do with so much individual power.
The signing of the Family Leave Bill was a major reversal of the Bush administration's policy, but the bill went through the standard channels again before it was made law. The former president was the only obstacle in the way of the bill; with his removal, it sailed into the record. Because Clinton is a Democrat and has already forged a good working relationship with Congress, one could almost say that the president's power has increased in this new administration. A Bush-like string of 35 vetoes seems unlikely over the coming four years.
A president doesn't need a good rapport with Congress to enjoy the powers of executive orders. These presidential prerogatives are one reason why the last election was known as a competition to be "the most powerful man in the world." Executive orders can range from sudden military incursions--like the bombing of Libya or sundry other targets outside our hemisphere--to a quick allotment of funds, perhaps for the cleanup of a Florida hurricane.
The Constitution of the United States does not make any provision for the executive order. Article 2, Section 1 simply states that "the executive power shall be vested in a President." The article gives the president the ability to command the armed forces, sign treaties with the approval of the Senate, grant pardons, and appoint countless federal and judicial officials.
Article 2 also says the president "shall recommend to [Congress'] consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient" and "shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed," but does not at all justify the kind of order that is tantamount to legislation.
The powers of the executive order are certainly vast for a single individual to hold, and only once have they been curbed. In the long aftermath of a particularly notorious executive order, the "policing action" that brought the U.S. into the Vietnam War, Congress did decide to act.
The War Powers Act, passed despite President Nixon's veto in 1973, required the president to seek Congressional funding and approval for executive military action within 90 days of the action itself. This period was later shortened to 60 days. Though 90 days seems a short period of time in the context of a war that lasted more than ten years, the United States' current capacity for fast, easy war-making makes 90 days an eternity.
It is obvious to those Libyans who might have had their houses destroyed by a stray air-to-ground missile that the War Powers Act still leaves much of the commander-in-chief's actions to his own caprices. Some non-revisionist historians might realize that 60 days neatly covers nearly all of the battles of the recent, billion-dollar-a-day Gulf War.
In late 1990, the late Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Or.), and representative Mickey Edwards (R-Ok.) all urged President Bush to cooperate with the War Powers Act before the initial mobilization in the Gulf. Using the phrase "New Age Monarchists" to describe some of his party's members, Edwards decried the president's ability and determination to act independently of the Congress.
However, the overpowering post-Vietnam commitment "not to do anything halfway" seemed to carry the day, and half a million soldiers found themselves halfway around the world. You might remember some of the Bush and Reagan Duo's greatest executive order hits: Grenada, Panama, and Beirut.
President Clinton will have to make huundreds of appointments in the executive branch and the federal courts. The foremost among these appointments might be on a Supreme Court that is veering off to the right at (relatively) breakneck speed.
Clinton has not had much of a chance to sign a treaty, but he shouldn't lock away his ceremonial pen; there are plenty of ex-Soviet republics with nuclear weapons. In addition, there will undoubtedly be many economic agreements to be consummated between the U.S., the European Community and emerging Southeast Asian nations. With the situation of the Israeli deportees unresolved, Clinton might even see a replay of Carter's Camp David talks.
As left-leaning people across the U.S. rejoice at President Clinton's apparent effectiveness, a different group of people has become leery of the power of the executive order. Republicans must wonder which tenant of recent history Clinton will change next. Will he enforce integration through busing nationwide? Will he pardon Israeli spies? Will be send the SEALs to do what Bush couldn't in Baghdad? Only time will reveal how much he takes advantage of the world's number one job.
Executive orders allow presidents to get away with just about anything.