The decree trap

Last week the presidency of Joseph R. Biden began in the U.S with a flurry of executive orders. America has never before witnessed such a robust exercise of presidential power: in a single day, 17 executive orders ranging from the environment to immigration. The previous record was one. Increasingly, as American politics descends deeper into partisanship and acrimony, American presidents have relied on their executive authority to play a more active role in shaping and implementing policy, often bypassing the usual democratic processes. What does this mean for the future of democracy?

Adnan R. Khan: What do you make of the presidential decrees and what does that tell us the future of this presidency?

Ilter Turan: To begin with, not surprisingly, it shows that Mr. Biden was prepared during this transition to undo the legacy of the Trump presidency. We had already had an indication of the things he was going to do: He announced in advance, for example, that he would come back to the climate agreement. Part of that environmental package was also canceling the Keystone XL pipeline. He had also said he would return the US to some of the agreements that it had previously signed, including rejoining the WHO, etc.

More broadly, his intention appears to be to undo the actions that have constituted the more problematical aspects of Trump administration and to get back to a tabula rasa so as to begin building new policies from that beginning point. He will, of course, have his own program to implement, his own policies to put into force, but first he wants to clear the table of Trump policies he found most offensive.

Adnan R. Khan: Decrees, of course, are a shortcut to canceling Trump’s policies which themselves were largely implemented through decrees. What are the risks of using decrees as a means of policy making and legislation?

Ilter Turan: The key phrase is “risks involved”. During his presidency, Trump demonstrated a particular proclivity to employ executive orders. This is not a new phenomenon either in the U.S. or in other parts of the world. The original intent of executive orders was to provide a more rapid avenue of decision making, one that would equip governments with discretion in putting the laws into action. Governments, however, would be expected to remain within the confines of existing laws crafted by a legislative institution – a parliament or, in the case of the U.S., the Congress. Over time, however, the purview of the executive order has expanded to such a degree that the executive has become almost an independent source of legislation. This has arisen in part out of necessity. The responsibilities of government have expanded very rapidly in an era of rapid change and mounting crises. Many issues that come up not only require expertise but also speedy action. These constraints stand in the way of legislatures that’s need time to deliberate on items that get on their agenda. So, at least initially and by necessity, legislatures have granted more powers to the executive to issue orders.

Predictably, this new avenue of creating laws has been seized upon by executives to expand their own powers at the expense of legislatures. But democracy assumes that there will be a separation of powers to function well while Presidential decrees concentrate too much power in the hands of the executive. This is an intensifying challenge for democratic governance.

Adnan R. Khan: While you mention that the legislature which is a key component of democracy, its deliberative process is also often cumbersome and time consuming. Yet, if we take the word deliberative out of the democratic equation, what are we left with?

Ilter Turan: When we take deliberation out, then the connection between the people and decision makers is severed. In fact, it begins to function the other way around: rather than people telling what they expect the government to do, the government begins to tell the voters what their problems are and what should be done about them. We must, in fairness, recognize that this was already happening causing people to lose their sense of political efficacy; that is, a feeling that their wishes and preferences make a difference. That is a major reason why we have ended up with populist governments.

Adnan R. Khan: So, the $64,000 question: how do we fix this?

Ilter Turan: The beginning point is that we have to recognize that there is a problem and start thinking about it. Obviously the way to fix it may require dealing with problems on a variety of fronts. A more decentralized government and the expansion of the role of smaller bodies of governance may be one solution. This would give people the opportunity to participate more actively in the political process. In addition, we have to make sure that there are effective checks on what the executive does and can do. In addition to legislatures, we might think about introducing other instruments of governance to monitor executive action. And finally, we have to make sure that all individual liberties and rights are respected so that voters are not afraid to criticize the executive and what it does.

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