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Monday, January 7, 2008

Rule by Decree

“Stroke of the pen. Law of the Land. Kinda cool.”

—Paul Begala, Clinton White House aide, quoted
in The New York Times, July 5th, 1998

Representative government in a republic is messy, tiresome, and tedious to those who believe themselves to know what must be done and willing to take the bold steps to implement the necessary policies. From Sulla to Cæsar to the corpulent caudillo of Caracas, the ever so efficient expedient of rule by executive fiat has tempted legitimately chosen leaders to flirt with, or overtly embrace authoritarianism. This temptation transcends philosophy and party, fact and fiction: it isn't just Tom Clancy who spins tales of executive power; even the Free Libertarian president in L. Neil Smith's and Aaron Zelman's novel Hope implements his agenda largely through executive orders over the opposition of Congress.

In the United States, presidents, starting with George Washington, have issued executive orders since the inception of the republic in 1789. In the early years, these orders were relatively rare and usually straightforward instructions to executive branch agencies on their operations. Until the 20th century, executive orders were not published or assigned numbers. At the start of that century, the State Department retroactively assigned numbers to all executive orders dating back to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and this numbering scheme has been continued to the present day.

Simply counting the number of executive orders is a crude measure of the exercise of executive power: an executive order may simply adjust pay rates within executive departments or be as sweeping as Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, which mandated the internment of U.S. citizens and legal residents of Japanese ancestry. Still, the total number of orders issued and the mean number per year gives a sense of the degree of the authoritarian temptation of U.S. presidents in the last century and a half.

President Party Congress Executive
Per Year
Grant R 43–44 20 5.0
Hayes R 45–46 0 0.0
Garfield R 47 1 0.5
Arthur R 48 1 0.5
Harrison, B R 51–52 1 0.25
Cleveland D 49–50, 53–54 70 8.8
McKinley R 55–57 103 17.2
Roosevelt, T R 58–60 712 356.0
Taft R 61–62 673 168.3
Wilson D 63–66 1707 213.4
Harding R 67–68 739 184.8
Coolidge R 69–70 899 224.8
Hoover R 71–72 966 241.5
Roosevelt, F D 73–79 3833 273.8
Truman D 80–82 604 100.7
Eisenhower R 83–86 478 59.8
Kennedy D 87–88 291 72.8
Johnson D 89–90 252 63.0
Nixon R 91–93 384 64.0
Ford R 94 123 61.5
Carter D 95–96 311 77.8
Reagan R 97–100 402 50.3
Bush, G H W R 101–102 164 41.0
Clinton D 103–106 359 44.9
Bush, G W R 107–109 183 45.8
  1. Raw data are courtesy of the Table of Congressional Volumes and Presidential Issuances: 1789–1999. Any errors in transforming these data into this table are my own.
  2. When two presidents served during a two-year congressional meeting due to death or resignation of the first, orders during that meeting are arbitrarily assigned to the president in office at its start.
  3. Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms in office. Orders from the first term are aggregated with those of the second and listed in sequence for his second term.
  4. Data for George W. Bush cover only the first three congressional meetings during his administration; orders issued during the 110th Congress are not included.

I was somewhat surprised by these results. I'd kind of assumed that with the growing concentration of political power in Washington, and the expansion of the authority of executive departments into all sectors of American life, that executive orders would grow apace, but this is not actually the case. Measured by executive orders per year, America's Great Dictator was none other than Teddy Roosevelt, who cranked out an average of 356 every year he spent in the White House. Presidents Coolidge and Hoover: often stereotyped as laissez-faire hands-off executives, averaged 224.8 and 241.5 executive orders per year, not far behind FDR's 273.8. Eisenhower issued only 59.8 per year, and no president since has issued as many as 80 per year. Rutherford B. Hayes was the only president since Lincoln to serve an entire four-year term without issuing a single executive order. Trivia buffs will delight in discovering that between 1873 and 2006, more than one third of all executive orders were issued by presidents named “Roosevelt”.

You can, if you wish, download an OpenOffice spreadsheet containing the raw data upon which this article is based.

Posted at January 7, 2008 21:21