Forget Obama's Executive Orders; He's Wielding Power by Presidential Memoranda Instead


Forget all the hullabaloo around Barack Obama's executive orders, says USA Today's Gregory Korte. The president's real action revolves around a different type of action that's just as powerful but less understood.

President Obama has issued a form of executive action known as the presidential memorandum more often than any other president in history — using it to take unilateral action even as he has signed fewer executive orders.

When these two forms of directives are taken together, Obama is on track to take more high-level executive actions than any president since Harry Truman battled the "Do Nothing Congress" almost seven decades ago, according to a USA TODAY review of presidential documents.

Obama has issued executive orders to give federal employees the day after Christmas off, to impose economic sanctions and to determine how national secrets are classified. He's used presidential memoranda to make policy on gun control, immigration and labor regulations. Tuesday, he used a memorandum to declare Bristol Bay, Alaska, off-limits to oil and gas exploration….

Obama issued three presidential memoranda after the Sandy Hook school shooting two years ago. They ordered federal law enforcement agencies to trace any firearmthat's part of a federal investigation, expanded the data available to the national background check system, and instructed federal agencies to conduct research into the causes and possible solutions to gun violence.

Two more recent memos directed the administration to coordinate an overhaul of the nation's immigration system — a move that congressional Republicans say exceeded his authority. Of the dozens of steps Obama announced as part of his immigration plan last month, none was accomplished by executive order.

The most interesting question about this all to me is whether Obama's supporters are arguing in good faith or bad.

The White House and its defenders can say, 'He can't be abusing his executive authority; he's hardly using any orders," said Andrew Rudalevige, a presidency scholar at Bowdoin College. "But if you look at these other vehicles, he has been aggressive in his use of executive power."

The Office of Legal Counsel, Korte notes, says there is "no functional difference" between executive orders and presidential memoranda. The latter are not numbered or indexed in the same way, though, meaning it's harder to gin up easy counts of them. So we're left questions raised by this sort of statement:

In a Senate floor speech in July, Majority Leader Harry Reid said, "While Republicans accuse President Obama of executive overreach, they neglect the fact that he has issued far fewer executive orders than any two-term president in the last 50 years."

So is Harry Reid just full of it? To ask that question is to answer it in the affirmative, I suppose.