By REMA RAHMAN And JOHN T. BENNETT
The day after former President Barack Obamadelivered his 2016 State of the Union address, Rep. Jason Chaffetz penned a letter chastising the commander in chief’s use of executive orders without working with Congress.
“It is unilateral, overreaching and unconstitutional,” the Utah Republican wrote. “Left unchecked, it is behavior that undermines, and will ultimately erode, the foundation of our democracy and our freedom.”
Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, decried in June 2015 an executive order by Obama that expanded a program that allowed children of undocumented immigrants and their parents a path to avoid deportation.
With the loss of the Democrats’ Senate majority, Cole wrote, Obama’s “arrogant answer will be to bypass Congress and act alone.”
Cole called it “temper tantrum-like behavior” and berated the “my-way-or-the-highway attitude.”
But many of the same Republicans who spent the Obama years hurling attacks over his use of executive orders have made an about-face under the Trump administration and its use of the same mechanism to bypass the legislative branch.
“Most of these orders relate right now to the executive branch, and I don’t think he’s trying to legislate through them,” Cole said last week. “If our Democratic friends think that they’ll do what we did — they’ll take him to court and they’ll win some and they’ll lose some.”
Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, agreed.
“So far, no,” he said last Thursday of possible overreach by the Trump administration. “[On] many of these issues, Congress will also need to pass legislation but the shortcut that Barack Obama was trying to take was, I think, ill-advised.”
Trump is looking to make good on campaign promises by issuing an array of executive actions since the evening he entered the White House on Jan. 20.
In January, Trump signed the same number of executive actions that Obama signed the same month before he left office, a total of seven.
That’s separate from at least 11 presidential memorandums Trump has signed since taking office.
Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt said the issue GOP members had with Obama was not only the content of the orders but the amount he was able to push through.
“We’re not going to be happy with every executive order that any president issues, but the concern with Obama was the unbelievable volume of executive orders, in particular, those issues that even after the election when the country decided they wanted a different president,” Blunt said.
Obama signed a total of 276 executive orders during his two terms as president. His predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, surpassed that number, signing 291 orders during his eight years, according to the American Presidency Project. Both issued fewer than Republican Ronald Reagan, who signed 381 orders during his two-terms.
So far, Trump’s unilateral actions have been largely embraced by GOP members in the House and Senate. Only a contentious order that halted travel to the U.S. for nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries was rebuffed — albeit, lightly — but mostly for how it was rolled out and the lack of communication with Congress and Cabinet officials beforehand.
Even House Speaker Paul D. Ryan admitted he learned of the order only after it was issued. There were also reports that congressional staffers on the Judiciary Committee worked on the order with Trump transition officials.
The chairman of that committee, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, refused to answer questions about a report that said his staff signed nondisclosure agreements to avoid talking about the work they were doing — an unprecedented move that blurs the lines of separation of powers.
Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican and chairman of the House Freedom Caucus said so far, he doesn’t perceive Trump’s use of executive orders as a problem.
“I’m one that will hold not only the Obama administration accountable for overreach but also this administration,” said Meadows, who also sits on the Oversight panel. “The executive orders to date have been truly the purview of the executive branch, and I don’t see where it has encroached on Congress’ authority at this point.”
For Democrats, the double-standards abound.
“I’m not a big fan of hypocrisy,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said. “When you criticize the Obama administration for doing something, Trump does exactly the same thing and you don’t criticize it, it is hypocrisy.”
Hoyer’s fellow Maryland Democrat Elijah E. Cummings, the ranking member on the Oversight Committee, agreed.
“They are letting him do what he will,” Cummings said of congressional Republicans. “The American people will make them pay for it.”
Using language remarkably similar to his predecessor, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said last Wednesday that Trump will do what he can via executive orders on issues like refugee vetting, visas and securing the country’s borders. But he is willing to work with Congress if passing legislation is possible.
Some Republicans said the confusion surrounding the immigration executive order should be a lesson that the president should think about slowing down.
“He’s getting in too big of a hurry in a lot of things, and I think that’s a problem that he has sometimes,” Oklahoma Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe said. “He’s anxious.”
Inhofe, like others, predicted that Trump’s relationship with the Republican-controlled Congress will be promising. But before that, he expects the 45th president will follow through on his vow to use executive actions to undo Obama-era policies.
Inhofe said he expects the new president will bypass Congress when he determines he must, but he doubts his party will cry foul as it did when Obama did so.
“Sure,” he replied with a grin, when asked if Republicans will support Trump’s executive actions. “We’ve got a different crowd in there now.”