During the past two years, as his frustration with a “dysfunctional” Congress has grown, US President Barack Obama has sometimes resorted to bypassing the legislative branch, as he did on Wednesday to implement tighter gun control laws.
“Where they won’t act, I will,” he said in October 2011 as part of a “We Can’t Wait” campaign he launched 10 months after Republicans took over the US House of Representatives.
Since then, the president has turned to executive orders, policy directives, waivers, signing statements and other administrative steps to bypass Congress and act on contentious issues, including immigration, welfare, education reform and now gun violence.
Acting in response to the shooting rampage in Newtown, Connecticut, Obama announced 23 executive actions on Wednesday designed to ensure guns do not get into the wrong hands. He also called on Congress to ban the sale of assault rifles, limit the size of ammunition clips and require background checks for all gun sales.
Most of what he proposed will have to be approved by Congress. He issued no executive order, which is the most formal tool a president has for pronouncing policy.
Obama did issue a presidential memorandum effectively overturning a congressional ban on federal research into the cause of gun violence.
He also acted administratively to get healthcare providers, states and federal agencies to share more information with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This is an effort to prevent gun sales to people with disqualifying criminal backgrounds or mental health issues.
“These are all critically important,” Coalition to Stop Gun Violence director of communications Ladd Everitt said.
Even before Obama announced his unilateral steps on gun violence, critics began accusing him of overreaching his presidential powers. However, political analysts say that presidents since first US president George Washington have used the same tools, especially when Congress is divided, as it is today.
Obama is not relying on executive orders themselves any more than other recent presidents. His 147 orders through four years is roughly the same pace as former US president George W. Bush, who issued 294 in two full terms and former US president Bill Clinton, who issued 308 in two terms.
Neither Clinton nor Bush faced a Congress as unproductive as the last one. It failed to pass a budget or a single one of 13 appropriations bills that fund federal agencies. It also has failed to pass a farm bill or overhaul the bankrupt Postal Service.
Only a few of the 147 orders Obama has issued have been controversial. Many are relatively modest, such as establishing advisory groups and task forces. Some have more substance, such as ratcheting up sanctions against Iran. And others are politically popular, such as one to identify and reduce regulatory burdens.