In other words, things are going the same way they often do in Washington. “There’s a sort of tribalism when it comes to the use of executive orders,” observes John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “When your party’s in the White House, it’s the greatest thing on earth. When your party’s out, it’s undemocratic. It’s basically Satan’s pen.”
But this is no way to make law. A polarized, narrowly divided Congress may offer Mr. Biden little choice but to employ executive actions or see his entire agenda held hostage. These directives, however, are a flawed substitute for legislation. They are intended to provide guidance to the government and need to work within the discretion granted the executive by existing law or the Constitution. They do not create new law — though executive orders carry the force of law — and they are not meant to serve as an end run around the will of Congress. By design, such actions are more limited in what they can achieve than legislation, and presidents who overreach invite intervention by the courts.
But legal limitations are not the only — or even perhaps the biggest — point of concern. Executive actions are far more ephemeral and easily discarded than legislation, which can set up a whipsaw effect, as each president scrambles to undo the work of his predecessor. Just as Mr. Trump set about reversing as many of President Barack Obama’s directives as possible, Mr. Biden is now working to reverse many of Mr. Trump’s reversals. With executive orders, there is always another presidential election just a few years off, threatening to upend everything.