Executive Orders & Presidential Power

What Are Executive Orders?

Executive orders, or presidential orders, can be traced back to George Washington, even though they only began to be numbered in 1907, according to The American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Contemporary documentation of executive orders only began after passage of the Federal Register Act of 1936. Despite over a century of their documented history, however, it is interesting to note that the Constitution doesn’t explicitly mention executive orders. According to Dr. Bert Rockman, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Purdue, executive actions exist thanks to Article 2, Section 3 of the Constitution, which requires laws to be faithfully executed. They generally take the form of executive orders, presidential memos, and/or proclamations:

  • Executive Orders are probably the most widely publicized instrument in the president’s toolbox of unilateral initiatives,” says Dr. Rockman. “They are used to set a policy direction. Some have a long life. Others are revoked by another administration.”
  • Memos are a more targeted option. “Memos are typically focused on a single and particular policy issue, either permitting it to go forward or restraining it from doing so.”
  • Proclamations often serve a ceremonial function, recognizing groups, nations, or holidays. Of course, there is one most people might be aware of: Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. But even that required further legal action to cement its impact. “That proclamation required the Union to be an unconditional victor of that war,” says Dr. Rockman. “In reality, abolition was not achieved until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1865, legally abolishing slavery.”

Despite these distinctions, it is important to note that executive orders aren’t a blank check for presidential power but come with legal limits. For example, presidents can’t sign orders violating existing laws, and signed orders must be sent to the Federal Register to be published. Memos, on the other hand, might never be seen by the public.

How Does Biden Compare?

President Biden’s use of executive orders is unique. It took previous presidents seven or eight weeks on average to reach the number of presidential actions Biden took in his first month.

In Biden’s first two days, he signed 17 directives. It took President Trump two months to reach that number.

In Biden’s first 10 days, he signed 24 executive orders, eight more than the combined total signed by the last five presidents in the same amount of time.

By the end of Biden’s first 12 days, he signed 25 executive orders, 10 memos, and four proclamations, nearly as many as Trump and Obama did in the same amount of time, combined.

However, when considering the total number of executive actions taken by previous presidents, Biden still has catching up to do. Obama signed 276 orders during his two terms, while Trump signed 208 in one term alone.

While Trump was prolific in his use of presidential power, Biden’s executive actions differ in significant ways, starting with legality.

“Nearly all uses of these presidential tools are subject to legal review in the courts,” says Dr. Rockman. “Most presidents are aware that they have to make a case that all procedural rules were followed. Trump, however, to put it mildly, was not exactly a stickler for procedure. Not surprisingly, the courts often rejected his orders for lacking in procedural regularity.”

But the key difference is intention.

Biden’s executive actions have focused on everything from immigration and transgender rights to climate change and the coronavirus. Within hours of being sworn in, Biden rejoined the Paris climate change agreement and the WHO, extended freezes on eviction and student-loan payments, and halted construction on the US-Mexico border wall. Many of his actions were intended to counter or reject orders made by the previous administration.

While Biden has focused on issues like combatting climate change and reintroducing science into the pandemic response, Trump had more internal goals.

“President Trump edged out previous presidents with his quantity of executive orders,” says Dr. Rockman. “But also, by their qualitative importance—in other words, their effect on the substance of policy by virtue of altering regulatory standards and weakening the independence of civil servants.”

To that end, Dr. Rockman explains, most of Trump’s orders attempted to alter the administrative status quo to benefit him and his loyalists, often planting those loyalists in key government positions.

The Rise of Presidential Power

Presidents using their power to make the government obey their will isn’t new.

“In some sense,” says Dr. Rockman. “The tension between presidents and the administrative state is inevitable.”

This is because our civil service system didn’t exist until 1883, and its development changed the way America governs.

“The warfare and welfare state contributed to the growth of administrative agencies,” says Dr. Rockman. This includes “the professional cadre of officials: civil servants, foreign service officers, intelligence officers, military officers and so on.”

Over the last few decades, as the civil service system grew, the political strength of government institutions weakened.

“As the government has grown more complex and laden with more administrative rules and delegation, Congress has largely been unable to keep up and its oversight of the administrative agencies has declined,” says Dr. Rockman.

This has encouraged presidents to take matters into their own hands.

“Gaining control of the administrative state is essential for presidents to fulfill their agendas,” says Dr. Rockman. “To be able to skirt around Congress, to populate agencies with loyalists, and to gain some measure of control over administrative interpretations of legal authority.”

This is especially true when considering party lines. Democrats tend to prefer increasing the government’s regulatory powers and social service programs, while Republicans do not. This means new presidents often reverse or dismantle the previous administration’s work. This can be seen with Trump after Obama and now Biden after Trump.

As Dr. Rockman explains, this reaffirms the transitory nature of executive actions and their inherent flaws when compared to permanent laws.

“Statutory law provides a measure of permanence because of what it takes to change or abolish it. Of course, statutory laws can be upended by judicial decisions. And if the statutory law is sufficiently vague and not updated, it may be subject to the vagaries of administrative rulemaking. Nevertheless, on the whole, statutes have a staying power that administrative interpretations and executive orders lack.”

But when governing bodies clash with the president’s goals, executive orders become an appealing alternative to gridlock.

“Executive authority gives presidents first mover status in a political system designed to frustrate everybody’s ambitions. For the most part, unilateral executive authority seems an easy, if temporary, way to circumvent the authority of other players and bend the independence (or resistance) of the permanent government to the will of the White House.”

This ability is vital when the government is divided. For example, consider trying to pass a bill in the Senate. A simple majority may not be enough, since legislation often requires a 3/5 super majority. This has turned the Senate into a “funeral parlor for legislation.”

“The joint conditions of party polarization and a closer balance of seats between the parties in the Senate makes actually getting to legislation a good bit more challenging than in the past,” says Dr. Rockman. This is evidenced by a sharp drop-off in actual legislation being passed.

Like Obama with stimulus legislation and the Affordable Care Act, Biden is taking advantage of executive orders to move policy despite Congressional pushback or stalemate. In contrast, Trump used executive orders in an attempt to centralize governing power.

“Trump advertised himself as an institution-breaker. He had virtually no knowledge of the mechanics of government, nor much if any respect for the independence of the permanent government. He wanted pure loyalty and to disrupt the routines and procedures of institutional authority,” says Dr. Rockman.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, what this means is that laws are the best choice for change, but also the hardest, leaving executive actions as a convenient Band-Aid for policy problems.

“Political conditions with relatively narrow majorities, frequently divided government, and strong differences between parties create a rocky path toward legislative accomplishment,” says Dr. Rockman.

“When presidents become certain their objectives conflict with congressional immobilization, they are likely to find executive governance a safe port in a storm. It’s hardly surprising presidents turn their attention to a less optimal but do-able means of getting what they want when they can’t do so legislatively.”

Outgrowing the Electoral College

61% of Americans are in favor of abolishing the Electoral College. 2020’s tension-filled election cycle may demonstrate why.

“The Electoral College creates distortions in political campaigns and voting outcomes most people would find objectionable,” says Dr. James McCann, political science professor at Purdue.

“Smaller states are overrepresented, and states that aren’t “swing states” (like Indiana) get little to no attention from presidential and vice-presidential candidates during campaigns.”

The disproportionate influence of swing states (and the resulting attention given to those states) is one of the main criticisms of the winner-take-all system. For example, 94% of 2016 campaign events occurred in just 12 states, while two-thirds of the events took place in just six states.

“Furthermore, the fact that a candidate who leads in the popular vote would not become the next president seems illegitimate on the face of it,” says Dr. McCann.

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Scholars Strategy Network

The Scholars Strategy Network (SSN) has one mission: connecting journalists, policymakers, and civic leaders with America’s top researchers to improve policy and strengthen democracy.

Started by a Harvard professor in 2011, the organization has grown from three people working in one office to 1,400 people at 270 universities across 48 states. Besides university-based scholars volunteering to serve the public good, the organization includes chapter leaders, staffers, and the steering committee.

While the SSN works to analyze policy impacts and advocate for evidence-based programs, its primary focus is supporting democracy. One way to accomplish this is by connecting diverse people, including scholars, policymakers, civic leaders, journalists, and other community members.

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Faculty Social Media Profile: Zhao Ma

Social Media as a Scientific Responsibility

At least 68% of Americans get their news from social media. University researchers play an important role in sharing science-related news, with 47% of scientists using social media to discuss their findings and keep up with new discoveries.

To Dr. Zhao Ma, Professor of Natural Resource Social Science at Purdue University, communication is both a vital part of research and a way to help promote colleagues and students.

 “Whether we’re social or biophysical scientists, engineers, or humanities scholars,” says Dr. Ma. “It’s important to be able to communicate our work with a broader audience within and beyond academia. Since a lot of our audience is already on social media, it makes sense to use it as a tool for communication.”

For Dr. Ma, it’s not just about promoting her own work, but that of her colleagues and students.

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Teamwork Tips: Stakeholders

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What is Stakeholder Engagement?

According to BiodivERsA’s Stakeholder Engagement Handbook, a stakeholder is someone who influences or is influenced by research. This includes policymakers, individuals in the private sector, non-governmental organizations, local communities—anyone with a vested interest, involvement, or funding in a project. 

The handbook outlines four levels of stakeholder engagement. 

  • Informing shares results with stakeholders. 
  • Consulting asks stakeholders for opinions. 
  • Involvement has stakeholders provide resources or data. 
  • Collaboration positions stakeholders as partners directly contributing to the team. 

Engaging with stakeholders holds many benefits, but takes time, money, and effort, requiring careful thought and planning. Stakeholders can be involved at any point in the process. They can help define the vision, develop project plans, provide training or data, review works in progress, or promote finished products using their public connections. Each stakeholder will have a unique role, with some preferring more or less involvement.

Research Benefits

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Teamwork Tips: When Not to Do Interdisciplinary Work

Interdisciplinary work opens doors to complex research and innovative solutions. However, not every problem calls for it, and not every researcher will benefit from it. So how do you know if interdisciplinarity is right for you?

How Big is Your Team?

For interdisciplinary work to succeed, small teams may be the best option for fostering creative problem solving and sharing methodologies. Otherwise, communication between team members may become unwieldy, detracting from the overall team’s efficiency.

“With a project like this, we had no idea where it was going, so a small team made it easier,” says Dr. Chris Clifton. Dr. Clifton was the principal investigator for big data ethics, one of four interdisciplinary projects from the Purdue Policy Research Institute’s (PPRI) Breaking Through, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 2016-2019. The other three initiatives were agricultural sustainability, climate tipping points, and flood risk mitigation.

“If you want to do something, you share with the entire team. Dealing with a half-dozen faculty, students, and post-docs, you can share everything. You can’t do that with a team of 20 or no one would have time to do anything but read emails. A small team is a good move for an exploratory project.”

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Teamwork Tips: How to Succeed at Interdisciplinary Work

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Interdisciplinary work involves coordinating researchers and scholars across disciplines and even stakeholders outside the university. Once you’ve decided to engage in this research, how can you help your team succeed?

Plan Ahead

Even if you’ve done interdisciplinary work before, each project offers unique challenges. Planning ahead minimizes conflict and misunderstanding down the road, while ensuring everyone involved will find value in the project.

“Early on, find out what makes this project interesting and valuable to each team member based on their career stage and expertise,” says Dr. Manjana Milkoreit, principal investigator on climate tipping points, one of four interdisciplinary projects from Purdue Policy Research Institute’s (PPRI) Breaking Through, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 2016-2019. The other initiatives were big data ethics, agricultural sustainability, and flood risk mitigation.

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Faculty Social Media Profile: Kevin Solomon

Social Media is a Global Tool for Engagement

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Half the world’s population uses social media, according to Hootsuite’s 2020 digital report. On average, people spend two and a half hours a day on various platforms, but it’s not just mindless entertainment and online shopping. At least 43% of people use social media for work, and it’s not just PR offices and marketing gurus. Faculty and staff can take advantage of social media to promote their work for the benefit of the university as well as the public.

Dr. Kevin Solomon, Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue, believes social media offers many benefits, including allowing people to target multiple audiences.

“Social media is a free and accessible platform for faculty to interact with the general public, stakeholders, students, and their peers,” says Dr. Solomon. 

Beyond engaging with students for recruitment, classes, or research, faculty and staff can also reach out to non-academics, perhaps with significant results.

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Teamwork Tips: Making Working Together Work

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With interdisciplinary work becoming more common, the ability to work well in a team is a valuable skill. According to the National Cancer Institute’s Collaboration and Team Science: A Field Guide, “Increased specialization of research expertise and methods has made interdependence, joint ownership, and collective responsibility between and among scientists near requirements.”

While understanding how to communicate across disciplines can be a challenge, the innovative solutions those collaborations allow are in ever-increasing demand. So, how does a researcher ensure they’re interacting effectively within a team? The answers lie in the field of “team science,” described by the NCI as “a collaborative and cross-disciplinary approach to scientific inquiry that draws researchers, who otherwise would work independently or as co-investigators on smaller-scale projects, into collaborative centers and groups.”

Collaboration vs. Integration

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Beginner’s Guide to Interdisciplinary Teams

From 2016-2019, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded Breaking Through, an interdisciplinary initiative with the Purdue Policy Research Institute (PPRI). Four teams were selected, each focused on a grand global challenge: big data ethics, agricultural sustainability, climate tipping points, and flood risk mitigation. To encourage interdisciplinary work, each team included members from the humanities, from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, and from the libraries. To promote engaged communication, stakeholders (i.e. policymakers, government officials) were involved throughout the research. 

While the interdisciplinary approach is a unique challenge, the benefits are undeniable. When interdisciplinary teams make strong, early connections with stakeholders, it amplifies their research’s impact. Crossing disciplines allows for thoughtful and complex research, while communicating with stakeholders ensures the end results are practical assets for the community.

Diverging from Traditional Teams

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