Written by Eleanor Knauss
Within the first two weeks of his unorthodox presidency, Donald Trump signed over 20 executive actions, including the controversial order to halt immigration temporarily from seven Muslim-majority countries and inde nitely from Syria. Trump’s swift, unilateral orders have pushed Americans into action, causing protests, bombardments of Senators’ telephone lines and many questions. On Friday Feb. 3, Professor MaryAnne Borrelli answered questions and dispelled myths surrounding the Trump Administration’s active first month in office at an event hosted by the Connecticut College chapter of the Roosevelt Institution. The first and most important question discussed doubled as the event’s title: “What is an executive order?”
Though executive orders have been an especially hot topic in the past few weeks, the implications of such actions are not as cut and dry as they may seem. The executive clause of the Constitution gives presidents enormous discretion when enacting and enforcing widespread policy change, which manifests most often in the forms of executive orders and presidential memoranda. At Roosevelt’s event, Borrelli distinguished between an executive order and a presidential memorandum, which, though operating under different names, have nearly identical effects.
“Both of them have the same effect in that the minute they are issued, they go into force as law,” Borrelli stated. Executive orders mirror Congressional legislation–as they are assigned numbers and added to the federal register–but are unilateral and effective without congressional approval. Presidential memoranda fall under much of the same umbrella in effect, but usually regard issues that Congress has already assigned to the executive branch (e.g. the order to resume construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines). Though often referred to in popular vernacular as “executive orders,” the 22 executive actions taken by President Trump have mostly fallen under the categories of presidential memoranda and proclamations.
While executive orders and presidential memoranda cover most of the unilateral actions taken and enforced by the President, other commands can be issued by the President in the form of proclamations, signing statements, national security directives and impoundments, all of which give the President power to shape policies and policy enforcement in different ways.
At “What Is an Executive Order?” members of the student body learned how to distinguish between these actions. Their definitions are as follows: proclamations tend to foresee policy action but are generally treated as a presidential comment rather than a command, and they often have to do with lower-stakes issues; for example, presidential proclamations usually indicate ceremonial observances, such as the designation of February as “National Heart Month” to promote heart disease awareness. National security directives, as the name suggests, refer to policy directly related to United States national security. Signing statements and impoundments both affect the way policies are enforced, the former by allowing the President to refrain from implementing legislation deemed ‘unconstitutional,’ and the latter by permitting the President to deny funding to certain institutions and congressional rulings. Impoundments as a whole have been ruled unconstitutional, while no ruling has been made on signing statements, though actions resembling the statements have been ruled unconstitutional in the past.
“You have to learn to drink from the fire hose,” Borrelli concluded. Though some of Trump’s orders have been intended to reverse those made by former President Obama, the majority reflect policy change Trump promised during his campaign. We are unlikely to see a slowing in executive actions coming from the White House in the near future, as the President has just begun to flex his executive muscles. The path going forward seems yet more shrouded in uncertainty when we consider that the left is fighting back with vim and vigor, the effects of which are already emerging. We saw live evidence of this during Roosevelt’s event on Friday night when a federal judge in Seattle temporarily blocked the ban on immigration, calling it unconstitutional. With the ruling, Judge James Robart encouraged resisters to keep protesting Trump’s executive actions.This activity promises a tumultuous four years.
So, are executive orders good or bad? “That depends on the content,” warned Borrelli. Franklin Roosevelt issued hundreds of executive orders over his 12 years as president, including one which condemned discrimination in our troops and another which paved the way for Japanese internment camps during the Second World War. Executive actions have the potential to create both great victories and great failures. They might promote civil liberties or limit them.
In the case of Trump’s executive actions, the country is heavily and starkly divided. On the political side less represented at Conn, many Americans are excited to see action being taken following two terms of gridlock and slow progress under Obama. “The [politically] right part of the country is excited about this,” commented Roosevelt club president, Ryan Friend, “they feel like their president is doing something.”