Is America's chief executive governing more like a king than a president?
It's been a mark of the Clinton administration to rule by executive fiat, circumventing a hostile Congress by signing presidential orders that affect everything from patients' rights to land conservation to a war against Yugoslavia. With one year to go and a presidential legacy at stake, the White House plans to aggressively pursue this strategy, dubbing it "Project Podesta" after the chief of staff who's spearheading it.
But this stroke-of-the-pen style of governing infuriates Republicans in Congress, who see it as part of a runaway presidency that has been gaining speed for decades. Concerned that the Constitution is being trampled and their power usurped, lawmakers are now considering ways to rein in what they see as overuse of presidential directives.
"We've come a long way toward tyranny, and the Hill - I hope and pray - is finally waking up," says William Olson, the author of a recent study on the subject. He testified before Congress last month, when the House held two hearings on legislation to restrict the president's use of executive orders. It is the first serious look Congress has taken at this issue since the 1970s, says Olson.
Particularly galling to lawmakers is the president's unilateral action on conservation. They point to a 1997 executive order protecting America's heritage rivers as an example of a Clinton takeover of state and congressional rights. It threatens citizens' property rights and redirects federal funds in ways not authorized by Congress, charges Rep. Jack Metcalf (R) of Washington.
More recently, Mr. Clinton called for regulations to protect 40 million acres of national forest land, involving restrictions just short of designating the acreage as wilderness. "We allow the president to in effect legislate through executive orders and proclamations. I find this trend deeply disturbing," said Representative Metcalf in testimony last month.
The Constitution speaks only vaguely about the president's powers, designating Congress as the body that makes laws and the executive branch as the one that carries them out. Nowhere does it define or limit the president's power to rule by executive order.
Rule-by-decree goes back to George Washington, who issued benign proclamations such as the nation's first Thanksgiving Day and more constitutionally risky ones such as a declaration of US neutrality in a European war.
The practice blossomed under Theodore Roosevelt, the start of a long line of presidents who came out from under …