Is America's chief executive governing more like a king than a
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
"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 the shadow of
Congress to make their own mark as national leaders. …