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Charles Dharapak/AP

Obama Joins Tradition of Overturning Predecessor’s Executive Orders

November 10, 2008 05:54 PM
by Christopher Coats
Bush laws created without the consent of Congress have become the president-elect’s first targets for change, following a long-practiced transition tradition.

Obama Takes Aim at Bush Orders

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With his transition team furiously preparing for the transition of power this January, it has been reported that the first days of President-elect Barack Obama’s first term will be marked by the use of executive power to reverse a number of Bush-era policies.

“He feels like he has a real mandate for change,” John Podesta, a member of Obama’s transition team, told The New York Times. “We need to get off the course that the Bush administration has set.”

While details remain unclear, laws and regulations pertaining to stem cell research, oil drilling, abortion and the existence of the controversial Guantanamo Bay prison all appear to be at the top of Obama’s to-do list.

Although no official targets of executive order will be made public until Obama meets with his cabinet, whose first member might be announced as early as next week, the president-elect’s plans to use the order have been long in the works.

As early as May of this year, Obama announced his intention on the campaign trail to use executive orders to review a number of Bush-era laws, especially ones that had been passed by the president using the very same order.

“I would call my attorney general in and review every single executive order issued by George Bush and overturn those laws or executive decisions that I feel violate the constitution,” Obama told a Denver crowd, according to Reuters.

According to The Nation, an executive order is a legally binding order given by the President, acting as the head of the executive branch, to federal administrative agencies.

While they are usually used to direct agencies according to established laws, they are sometimes used to “guide agencies in directions contrary to congressional intent.”

This latter definition and use has earned the executive order a wealth of criticism, as it allows a president to create and enforce laws without the consent of Congress.

While often controversial, the reversal of past president’s executive orders is hardly new and has been used by members of both parties.

Early in his first term, President George W. Bush took a similar approach to executive orders issued by Bill Clinton, including one that would forbid companies from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers.
At the time, Republican lawmakers presented a letter to the incoming president with a series of Clinton-era executive decisions that they wanted to see overturned.

Perhaps aware of the common practice of incoming presidents, the Center for Reproductive Rights sent Obama a 23-page memo calling for, among other things, an immediate repeal of the January 2001 Bush executive order denying funds to all international family planning organizations that performed abortions or provided abortion counseling.

Background: Tension during and after term

Earlier this year, Bush’s use of executive orders created tension within his own party when Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee expressed their concern about the President’s amendments to a 1981 executive order defining the powers and actions of the intelligence service without notifying them.

“Given the impact that this order will have on America’s intelligence community, and this committee’s responsibility to oversee intelligence activities, this cannot be seen as anything other than an attempt to undercut congressional oversight,” said Pa. Rep. Pete Hoekstra at the time.

Opinion & Analysis: Abuse of power in the eye of the minority

Although Bush’s executive orders have been a common target of scorn, such criticism follows a tradition of those not in power alleging an abuse of authority when it comes to such documents.

In 1998, conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly called an executive order signed by then President Bill Clinton a “power grab by executive order” and an attack on Federalism.

In early October, Slate offered their own collection of Bush-era executive orders that they felt should be scrapped, including the 2003 order offering broad legal protection for companies operating in Iraq, and EO 13292 from that same year, which allowed a redefinition of the Office of the Vice President.

Resources: George W. Bush’s EOs

Executive orders issued by President George W. Bush can be viewed on the official White House Web site, according to the date issued. The orders range from the controversial to the mundane, such as an official ruling about offering a half-day to government agencies.
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