Legislative Acts v. Executive Orders

As part of a different research project I was thinking about executive orders versus Congressional action. There are some political scientists I know who might now accuse me of not listening to them and that is fine, because I probably was not. I was under the impression that for the last several presidencies executive orders occurred with higher frequency than before. I found that was not the case.

Going back to the 104th Congress you can see that executive orders are remarkably steady (I classified these by signing date of the order, not publication date). What we do see though is enacted laws from Congress declined significantly. So I am going to kind of claim victory from defeat. Executive orders are more frequent relative to the enacted laws than before, and I think that is why I had that impression.

Now aside from generally saying Congress is shirking its responsibilities does this get at anything more? This picture alone does not. There exists a significant amount of nuance and further context to explain these situations. For example, a split Congress could weigh on the level of enactment. So too could preoccupation with a national tragedy or a significant and voluminous piece of legislation. A President might veto an enacted law and there were not sufficient votes to override the veto.

It does give pause as I consider how we move forward after a pandemic and protests, both of which highlight the fraying social and economic fabric in our country. Executive orders are not leadership per se. It is a great way for a President to set a list of priorities and frame the conversation. It seems like it is less that now and is more an alternative to the Congress doing its job.


Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, “Executive Orders.” The American Presidency Project. Ed. John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters. Santa Barbara, CA. 1999-2017. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/executive-orders, 03 June 2020

Congressional data taken from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/statistics, 03 June 2020.

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