The History of Executive Orders: Putting Trump’s into Context
by Jack Sullivan on Friday, February 10th, 2017
Lately, you’ve probably heard a lot about executive orders. Within days of entering office, Donald J. Trump, has used his powers to fulfill one of his campaign promises, sparking raging controversy. But what are executive orders and why do they exist?
America, like most democracies, is built around checks and balances. For example, less than 60% of Congress, also known as the Legislative Branch, cannot create a new law without approval from the President of the United States, and all of these powerful officials are usually selected by the people. The Founding Fathers of the United States, colonial architects of American infrastructure who had just gained freedom from Britain, felt that restrictions on government power were vital to preserving Americans’ voices. Having just won a war to escape a dictatorship, our nation’s founders were careful not to create another monarchy.
However, while effective at restricting power, the checks and balances system has one major flaw: bureaucratic lag. While a slow-moving government may not pose too many problems on a day-to-day basis, in times of crisis, the authorities need to make quick decisions to keep everyone safe. So, to speed up the government, the Constitution gives the President power to create executive orders, rules which can be enacted immediately without interference from checks and balances. The Founding Fathers hoped that the President would use his executive orders to do what’s best for the country, but there’s really no way to ensure that they will have the intended effect.
Perhaps one of the most famous executive orders in American history was Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Like Trump, Lincoln used executive orders to make quick, uncontested changes. Lincoln’s order, declared in the midst of the Civil War, legally freed all slaves in the Confederate States.
Even though Lincoln’s order did not really free slaves (the Confederate states tried seceding from the Union and thus were not following any Union laws), it served as a morale booster for Northern troops and prompted slaves to rebel and join the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation brought positive change, helping the Union win the war and setting a precedent for the treatment of minority groups in America.
More relevant today, of course, are Trump’s executive orders. Since entering office on January 20th, Trump has released many orders to fulfill some of his many campaign promises. One of his changes concerns Mexican border protection, including the authorization for his infamous wall. Another order limits the power of Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act. Yet, perhaps the most controversial is his ban on immigration from seven Muslim countries.
Trump’s immigration ban, which will last for 90 days, prevents the immigration of citizens of seven specific majority-muslim. It also suspends visa applications, blocks all Syrian refugees, and implements a new screening process in an attempt to protect US citizens from terrorists.
The vast controversy surrounding Trump’s order stems from the fact that the seven banned countries, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, are predominantly Muslim. For many, the order’s targeting of a specific religion goes against religious freedom. According to the Constitution, “Congress should make no law respecting the establishment of religion” (Amendment I). Because the application of this rule to non-Americans is up to interpretation, the order doesn’t directly go against our Constitution; however, many feel that freedom of religion is not just a law but also an American value.
According to analysis from Slate, Trump’s executive order could be unconstitutional in other ways, including a potential conflict with the 14th Amendment, which demands equal protection for all and fair treatment under the law. In the end, it might fall to the Supreme Court to decide if the order is lawful. There would have to be a review of a lawsuit, but such a process could take years. However, on February 4th, Homeland Security suspended the order because of its questionable legality and rendered it ineffective until the suspension is cleared.
Fortunately, the faculty, staff, and students here at Milton Academy have not been directly affected by the ban. According to Head of School Todd Bland and Upper School Principal David Ball, Milton faculty members are following up with certain international students individually. Although nobody was directly affected, they acknowledge that many students are worried by the order.
In his speech to the school on Monday morning, Mr. Bland encouraged students to remember Milton’s mission and ideals (Daring to Be True). “With this new presidency, for students at Milton, executive orders are an unknown concept,” he tells the Measure, “and these changes have been understandably unsettling.”
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