President Joe Biden and aides showed touches of prickliness Thursday over growing scrutiny of the new president’s heavy reliance on executive orders in his first days in office.
The president in just over a week has already signed more than three dozen executive orders and directives aimed at addressing the coronavirus pandemic as well as a gamut of other issues including environmental regulations, immigration policies and racial justice.
Biden has also sought to use the orders to erase foundational policy initiatives by former President Donald Trump, such as halting construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and reversing a Trump-era Pentagon policy that largely barred transgender people from serving in the military.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that Biden’s early reliance on executive action is at odds with the Democrat’s pledge as a candidate to be a consensus builder. The New York Times editorial board on Thursday ran an opinion piece headlined “Ease up on the Executive Actions, Joe."
Biden, for his part, on Thursday framed his latest executive actions as an effort to “undo the damage Trump has done” by fiat rather than “initiating any new law.” During a brief exchange with reporters in the Oval Office after signing two more executive orders, he noted he was working simultaneously to push his $1.9 trillion COVID aid package through Congress. After being asked by a reporter if he was open to splitting up the relief package, the president responded: “No one requires me to do anything.”
Earlier in the day, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield bristled at the criticism of Biden's executive orders in a series of tweets, adding, “Of course we are also pursuing our agenda through legislation. It’s why we are working so hard to get the American Rescue Plan passed, for starters.”
In his Senate floor speech Thursday morning, McConnell offered a misleading broadside that Biden as a candidate had declared “you can’t legislate by executive action unless you are a dictator.”
In fact, Biden at an October ABC News town hall had said there are certain “things you can’t do by executive order unless you’re a dictator” during an exchange about how quickly he’d push his plan to raise taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans.
Biden and aides, including top White House economists, have said that they believe executive action is a pale substitute for legislative action. At the same time, they’ve defended the heavy use of executive action at the start of the administration as a necessary stopgap to address the worst public health crisis in more than a century and reverse some of Trump’s policies.
“There are steps, including overturning some of the harmful, detrimental and, yes, immoral actions of the prior administration that he felt he could not wait to overturn, and that’s exactly what he did,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
While Biden has used executive action more frequently out of the gate than recent White House predecessors, he’s not alone in being a heavy user of presidential fiat -- or being criticized by the opposition party for doing so.
Bill Clinton had 364 orders over two terms, George W. Bush signed 291 over his eight years in office and Barack Obama issued 276. Trump in his one term signed 220 orders.
McConnell on Thursday scoffed that Biden in his first week in the White House “signed more than 30 unilateral actions and working Americans are getting short shrift.” He similarly criticized Obama for “imposing his will unilaterally” through executive orders and memoranda.
But McConnell was far more understanding of Trump’s decision to use executive orders to get around Congress at various points in the Republican’s presidency.
For example, in August, after coronavirus relief negotiations collapsed, Trump signed a series of executive orders that called for deferring payroll taxes for Americans earning less than $100,000 per year, pausing student loan payments, continuing eviction moratoriums and extending, albeit smaller, enhanced unemployment benefits that had expired.
“Since Democrats have sabotaged backroom talks with absurd demands that would not help working people, I support President Trump exploring his options to get unemployment benefits and other relief to the people who need them the most,” McConnell said.