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Executive orders are routine, not scandalous

Associated Press

It stood to reason that the right would be unimpressed with President Obama's new measures on preventing gun violence, but some reactions, especially from sitting senators, were needlessly hysterical, particularly on the issue of executive orders.

As we discussed yesterday, the bulk of the White House plan will require congressional action, but the president also approved 23 executive orders. These were hardly outrageous steps -- one was nominating a new AFT director. Another was informing state health officials about the scope of mental health services that Medicaid plans must cover under current law. As Rachel explained on the show last night, another one of the 23 orders instructs administration officials to send an open letter to licensed gun dealers giving them guidance on how best to facilitate background checks, if they choose to.

These were all modest, almost perfunctory steps, taken by a president acting well within his legal authority. Obama doesn't need Congress' permission to publicly remind folks about existing law.

And yet, those who often struggle with public policy are outraged anyway.

Soon after the White House news conference, Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is considered a potential contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, denounced Mr. Obama as flouting the role of Congress for taking some actions on his own.

"Making matters worse is that President Obama is again abusing his power by imposing his policies via executive fiat instead of allowing them to be debated in Congress," Mr. Rubio said. "President Obama's frustration with our republic and the way it works doesn't give him license to ignore the Constitution."

Does Rubio have any evidence at all that president abused his power? No. Do any of the president's executive orders require congressional review? No. Is the president ignoring the Constitution? No. Did Rubio even manage to find one executive order that he disagrees with? No.

Does Marco Rubio have any idea what he's talking about? It doesn't seem like it.

But the right-wing Floridian looked almost sensible compared to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

In fact, Paul is prepared to "nullify" the modest steps Obama took under his existing powers.

Sen. Rand Paul on Wednesday night announced plans to try to undo parts of President Barack Obama's executive proposals to curb gun violence, saying the president may be developing a "king-like complex."

"We will nullify anything the president does that smacks of legislation," the Kentucky Republican said on Fox News in reference to 23 actions Obama unveiled earlier in the day.

Paul added that executive orders "could be construed to describe an attempt by the executive to make laws." Construed by whom? The senator didn't say. Which orders seemed dubious? He didn't say that, either.

Rubio and Paul seem to be offering an entirely new argument: that presidents who use executive orders are necessarily abusing the democratic process. Under this reasoning, every executive order, on any issue, by every president, is an example of "imposing policies via executive fiat," to use Rubio's phrase.

Civics 101 lessons shouldn't be necessary for sitting senators, but just because a president -- any president -- issues an executive order under existing legal authority doesn't mean the president is "frustrated with our republic and ignoring the Constitution." Every president since Washington has issued these orders. This isn't scandalous; it's routine.

Indeed, for all of yesterday's hysterics, none of Obama's detractors have gotten around to pointing to a single one of yesterday's executive actions that's legally dubious.

I should probably know better, but what I'm looking for here is a little depth of thought, or a slight pretense of seriousness of purpose. The argument from the right seems to be, not that there's something wrong with these specific executive orders, but that there's something wrong with all executive orders. Why? Because they say so.

It has all the sophistication of school-yard taunts.

Update: Adam Serwer reminds me that Obama's 23 measures yesterday may not even count as executive orders, per se, but are probably better described as "presidential memorandums." Adam also noted that Rubio told Fox News last night that Obama wants a gun "ban" along the lines of pre-Heller D.C. That's not even close to what the president has proposed.