Executive Orders

08-26-2012Fr. John LettersFr. John

Dear Friends,

Someone should order an Executive Order that orders that executive orders be rare and only for exceptional circumstances. Otherwise we get this:

President Obama issued an executive order that orders the Federal bureaucracy not to deport young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children if they fulfill certain requirements and allow them to apply for work permits. The President said he was doing this since Congress failed to act on Immigration Reform. Some cheered and some jeered.

AZ Governor Brewer issued an executive order as well, which orders AZ State bureaucracy not to give state level benefits such as Driver’s license or in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who fall under the President’s executive order. The Governor said she was doing this to comply with AZ voters who did pass a Proposition that limited certain state level benefits to state residents with regular federal immigration status. Some cheered and some jeered.

Now those who cheer Gov. Brewer’s executive order really shouldn’t jeer at President Obama’s executive order. Nor should those who cheer President Obama’s executive order jeer Gov. Brewer’s executive order. If we allow our officials this privilege of issuing executive orders on just about anything they want to then one side can’t complain when the other side does it and vice versa. You can see how silly all this can and has become but more importantly how undemocratic it is and how potentially tyrannical it can become.

We are either a nation governed by laws or a nation governed by men. If we are a nation governed by humans then we are at the will and pleasure of whoever is in power. If however we are a nation of laws than we have much more a chance of stability and order in our lives. Without the rule of law we are subject to the biases of whoever holds power. The meaning of the word Dictator comes from the Latin word meaning “to speak” and in our case the elected official speaks by way of executive order. Which makes the order pretty dictatorial. However with the rule of law we can be assured that no matter who is in power basic order and justice will prevail since the law is predictable whereas the will of the ruler is not and we are thus spared being governed by a dictator.

When we know what the law is we can plan accordingly. Rule by fiat of the ruler casts great uncertainty over our lives. It also is very difficult on the bureaucracies that run our government and businesses. It is akin to playing a game of poker when the rules change with every hand. And that is certainly the case with this series of dueling executive orders. Everyone seems to forget that these orders affect human lives.

We’ve seen this battle of executive orders before: The Mexico City Policy which banned federal funding of abortions in Foreign Aid. Regan issued it, Clinton rescinded it, Bush reinstituted it and Obama rescinded it; The Military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy issued by Clinton, rescinded by Obama; the Federal Stem Cell Policy which limited embryonic stem cell research and enlarged alternative research funding signed by Bush and then rescinded by Obama cutting off funds for alternative research and enlarging embryonic stem cell research.

Although Executive Orders can act as a safety valve for gaps in the legislative process they should be few and far between and certainly not business as usual. Too often as we have seen they are used as political baseball bats or social engineering tools making the orders rather imperial. When presidents and governors can act in arbitrary and biased ways our reliance on the rule of law is weakened and often rendered meaningless. That is certainly not what our founders intended nor is it a sign of a vibrant and sustainable democracy.

As we move into another election cycle we have another opportunity to insist on the rule of law and not of men (or women).


Fr. John Bonavitacola