As our country has a powerful appreciation for separation of powers, we rightly fear executive action. On the other hand, we know that the president oversees a multitude of executive agencies and has a role to play in the normal functioning of government. We are led to ask, how much presidential action is too much? This question has been raised in response to a series of controversial executive orders that president Donald Trump has signed since his inauguration on January 20th. While many of these orders represent standard procedure and others look quite unprecedented, one thing is certain: Americans need to have constant vigilance in ensuring the president doesn’t exceed his constitutional role, or exercise too much power.
We can’t just depend on constitutional provisions alone. We also need to ensure there is enough accountability to know whether these provisions are being followed. When those in power try to push the boundaries of what is allowed, it is the responsibility of citizens, members of the press, and the other branches of government to call it out. It is partly in our power to point out the constitutional standards for what a president should be and try to make sure the Trump administration meets them.
But judging executive orders can be a daunting task. In the past these presidential directives have varied from simple statements of purpose to sweeping changes in how a government agency should conduct itself. As the constitution only empowers Congress to allocate funds, executive orders must work with existing resources already available to the executive branch. In practice, however, presidents have used these available funds to bring about significant changes in policy. Past presidents have used executive orders for major landmark changes to government, making it hard to say when a president has truly overstepped their bounds.
This is all the more reason to discuss the issue frequently and keep a watchful eye on the way Trump uses executive orders going forward. Precedent is one useful way to judge his executive actions. If we can see an instance where executive power has increased disproportionately from previous administrations, this can be cause for alarm. The Trump administration’s failure to consult some government legal experts before signing its recent travel ban is an example of a potentially dangerous precedent to set.
On the other hand, past executive action shouldn’t act as an excuse. Just because a prior administration did something, it doesn’t mean we should encourage it today. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2, for example, is an executive action we should never repeat. More recently Trump has claimed to simply be building on Obama’s executive actions when it comes to his controversial immigration ban. These sorts of comparisons shouldn’t stop us from petitioning against clear abuses of executive power. If not then, now can be the time to take a stand about what we think the executive branch should and shouldn’t be able to do.
In evaluating Trump’s executive orders we are ultimately reminded of the reason we have checks and balances in the first place: to make sure no one in the government has too much power. We therefore need to be vocal if we see the Trump administration attempting to overshadow Congressional action. Using executive orders to change long-standing policy, as Trump’s order on immigration likely does, can constitute overreach. If these practices become a regular occurrence, we should be concerned.
Much of the burden of keeping the executive in check falls on the legislative and judiciary branches, a fact we were reminded of when a judge halted portions of Trump’s recent immigration order. However, there is certainly a role for every citizen to play going forward. By staying vocal and informed, citizens can shape the political process and help to ensure that our branches of government are staying true to their mission. Keeping an eye on how Trump uses executive orders is part of that duty.