Repeal and Replace or Circumvent?: Comparative Uses of the Presidential

Approximately a photo of Mac: dude with a mustache and bushy sideburns
Not actually Mac

Guest Post!
One of the joys of being alive is having smart, curious friends to talk with – or to write guest posts for your blog. I’d love to see more of these, especially from friends with perspectives and opinions different from my own – email me your ideas!

Today it’s awesome friend Mac writing with a cool little study on how the last four U.S. Presidents have used their power to write executive orders. Enjoy!

Trump is widely known for his criticisms of Obama’s use of executive orders to circumvent congress and the political process.

Why is @BarackObama currently issuing executive orders that are major power grabs at authority? This is the latest

However, since Trump became president he has frequently used executive orders as a way of getting things done. For an explanation of and historical primer on executive orders, check out this JSTOR daily article. True policy and history nerds, read on. In the first year of his presidency, he was on pace to use double the number of executive orders that President Obama had used. In fact, Obama used the executive order less than any president since Cleveland. So why has Trump, once a critic of the executive order, suddenly begun using it to pass legislation?

One explanation for this could be that he is simply using executive orders to erase the bad policy of his much maligned (on the political right) predecessor, “Mr. Trump…worked to deregulate industries and dismantle Obama-era programs through executive order.” And certainly, examples of this abound, highlighted by news media and Trump’s own promises of undoing Obama’s work. But how common is this? How often did past presidents use executive orders to revoke legislation of their predecessors? And taking this into account, if Trump is really only using executive orders to repeal his predecessors’ legislation, how often is he using it to circumvent the regular legislative process?

Luckily for us, there’s some data to dig into. Enter the Federal Register. An office of the National Archives and Records Administration, the Federal Register helps citizens and policy wonks alike understand current proposed and passed legislation covering everything from marine safety to administrative practice and procedure to government procurement and to our friend, the executive order.

Listing documents back to 1994, the Federal Register lets anyone download all executive orders from almost all of Bill Clinton’s presidency to the current administration. As part of the dataset, they include disposition notes that contain helpful information on whether the executive order revokes, amends, or supersedes any other executive orders with relevant dates. From here, we can further analyze which executive orders were rolling back previous legislation that was viewed as outdated or bad policy, and which were used to fully circumvent the legislative process. Below is that breakdown.

Presidential Use of Executive Orders and Revocations

President # of EOs Revocations of previous EOs Revocations as % of EOs Months in Office Average EOs – revocations per month
Trump 86 18 21% 21 3.24
Obama 276 60 22% 96 2.25
Bush 291 79 27% 96 2.21
Clinton* 274 66 24% 84 2.47
*Clinton’s executive orders are circa 1994, as far back as the Federal Register tracks them.

We can see here that not only does Trump have the highest number of executive orders per month of being president compared to his three predecessors, but he actually has the lowest number of revocations as a percent of total executive orders issued. So, not only is Trump issuing a lot of executive orders, but he, more than his three predecessors, is doing so mostly to circumvent the legislative process, not to revoke Obama’s, or any other presidents’, own executive orders.