THE BLOG
07/02/2014 04:55 am ET | Updated Sep 01, 2014

Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush Totaled 672 Executive Orders. Obama has 182. Boehner's Lawsuit Is Frivolous

Mark Wilson via Getty Images
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Ted Cruz accused the president of breaking the law by claiming,

"Of all the troubling aspects of the Obama presidency, none is more dangerous than the president's persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat."

Unfortunately for Sen. Cruz and like-minded citizens, there's nothing unprecedented about Obama's recent activities. According to C-Span's Congressional Glossary, an executive order is defined as, "a presidential directive with the force of law. It does not need congressional approval." While many conservatives have labeled Obama's unilateral decisions as imperial, or the actions of a "monarch," the truth is that U.S. history is filled with Republican presidents who have been far more willing to take matters into their own hands.

Therefore, before analyzing the executive orders of GOP icon Ronald Reagan, or recent conservative president George W. Bush, it's important to note that Theodore Roosevelt had 1,081 executive orders, Dwight D. Eisenhower totaled 484, and Nixon had 346 of the same decisions deemed as "imperial" by today's GOP. As illustrated by The American President Project of UCSB, many of our most beloved Republican presidents took matters into their own hands (hundreds of times) when Congress refused to act:

Abraham Lincoln 48
Ulysses S. Grant 217
Theodore Roosevelt 1,081
Dwight D. Eisenhower 484
Ronald Reagan 381
George W. Bush 291
Barack Obama 182

Despite a chain email debunked by Politifact.com stating Obama has over 1,000 executive orders, the truth is that the "imperial president" is far less imperial than previous Republicans in the White House. President Obama has 182 executive orders. Once can only assume that the GOP has taken this inaccurate email seriously, especially the phrase, "This president is determined to take control away from the House and Senate...More than 1000+ and counting executive orders in six years." Not only is this accusation completely false, but it ignores the fact that Ronald Reagan had 381 unilateral decisions that bypassed Congressional approval.

President Reagan, the conservative icon mentioned at least five times in Chris McDaniel's recent concession speech, viewed executive actions with the same mindset as President Obama. In all eight years of the Reagan Presidency, the House was controlled by Democrats. In a Los Angeles Times article in 1987 titled Reagan to Use Executive Orders to Bypass Congress, Reagan had no problem acting unilaterally to achieve social and legislative victories:

With 17 months of his presidency remaining, Ronald Reagan will bank on executive orders and judicial action to implement social policies that he cannot persuade Congress to enact, Gary L. Bauer, the President's chief domestic policy adviser, declared Thursday.

Bauer, the feisty attorney Reagan named to push his social issue agenda, said the President may accomplish some of his goals in such areas as abortion and pornography through a series of executive orders...

"With a hostile Congress that doesn't show much sign of coming toward us on some of these issues, it behooves us to take the initiative when we can take it," Bauer said.

There are a number of things "the President can unilaterally do," Bauer said, as evidenced by the plan Reagan announced three weeks ago to curb federal funding for organizations and groups that support abortion.

It's doubtful that Ted Cruz would dare write an op-ed calling Reagan "lawless." Like Democrats today, Republicans knew what "the President can unilaterally do" in reference to the Gipper's ability to influence legislation despite a "hostile Congress." That being said, in terms of lawlessness, Congress wasn't notified of the millions of dollars and shipment of weapons to Iran under Reagan's presidency; another aspect of his celebrated tenure that won't ever be criticized by Tea Party politicians like Ted Cruz.

As for all the conservative media pundits and politicians evoking the Constitution and what our Founders would think of Obama, the fact is that Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase was an executive decision that went against his principles and existing laws. Fourteen U.S. states (from Montana and North Dakota to Arkansas and Louisiana) can thank Jefferson for acting on his own, without the possibility of Congress preventing the deal. President Jefferson didn't ask Congress if he could acquire Napoleon's Louisiana territory, but he did so nonetheless. As stated by Princeton University, "Although he felt that the U.S. Constitution did not contain any provisions for acquiring territory, Jefferson decided to purchase Louisiana because he felt uneasy about France and Spain having the power to block American trade access to the port of New Orleans." While the author of the Declaration of Independence knew he didn't have the authority, his unilateral action was done regardless of the Constitutional constraint. According to John Yoo's Jefferson and Executive Power (written by the same man who wrote Bush's torture memos), even the Founding Fathers sometimes put pragmatism over the Constitution:

Viewing the prerogative as resting outside the Constitution relieves us of stretching the law so drastically to permit more freedom of action. But it also requires us to accept that executive decisions can be both necessary and illegal, and it forces Presidents to run the risk of violating the law in order to protect the national interest... Throughout most of his Presidency, Jefferson could claim both. In Louisiana, he reached a bargain that secured the nation's prosperity and safety for generations.

For once, it would be nice to see the phrase, "What part of against the law don't you understand" in reference to the Tea Party's view of Jefferson, as opposed to illegal immigrants. Furthermore, the idealized version conservatives have of Reagan, the Founders, and U.S. history ignores the fact that Obama's executive orders are rooted in centuries of similar unilateral decisions.

Regarding President Bush's executive orders, nobody in the GOP dared sue him for a unilateral decision authorizing NSA wiretaps. As summarized in a 2005 CNN article, we knew long before Snowden that a president had authorized the NSA to spy on citizens:

Bush says he signed NSA wiretap order

Adds he OK'd program more than 30 times, will continue to do so

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In acknowledging the message was true, President Bush took aim at the messenger Saturday, saying that a newspaper jeopardized national security by revealing that he authorized wiretaps on U.S. citizens after September 11.

... After hearing Bush's response, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, said there was no law allowing the president's actions and that "it's a sad day."

"He's trying to claim somehow that the authorization for the Afghanistan attack after 9/11 permitted this, and that's just absurd," Feingold said. "There's not a single senator or member of Congress who thought we were authorizing wiretaps."

Sources with knowledge of the program told CNN on Friday that Bush signed the secret order in 2002. The sources refused to be identified because the program is classified...

"I have re-authorized this program more than 30 times," he said. "I intend to do so for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al Qaeda and related groups."

While Feingold stated in 2005, "not a single senator or member of Congress" thought they were authorizing Bush to wiretap citizens, today domestic spying is a top issue. It speaks volumes that Republicans viewed NSA surveillance as Constitutional when a Republican was in the White House, while the recent executive orders of Obama are labeled as "lawless."

Finally, the lawsuit threatened by John Boehner will be funded by millions of taxpayer dollars. Congressional Republicans believe it is a good idea to sue the president because, as stated by NBC News, Boehner thinks "Obama has exceeded his presidential power by issuing orders on issues like the environment, paid family leave, health care and LGBT rights." If the environment, immigration reform, and paid family leave are worthy of a lawsuit, but Bush can get away with secret executive orders-over 30 of them on spying-then something is wrong with our political system.

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