I didn’t have any intention to return to Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) latest flap, but the senator keeps talking about it in a way that warrants a little follow up.
The story started on Friday, when the Kentucky Republican talked about what he’d do if elected president: “I think the first executive order that I would issue would be to repeal all previous executive orders.” Paul’s comments were reportedly met with “booming cheers” from his conservative audience.
Of course, the declaration didn’t make a lot of sense. Presidents since George Washington have made thousands of executive orders – many of them, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, of great national significance – and the notion that Rand Paul wants to repeal all of them seemed ridiculous.
Soon after, the senator’s office walked back his comments, suggesting Paul was speaking with a rhetorical flourish at the event. “It was not meant to be taken literally,” an aide said, seemingly ending the controversy.
The aide, however, might want to have a chat with Paul himself, who sounded fairly sincere about the idea the day after his office tried to downplay the senator’s remarks. Scott Conroy asked Paul directly about the idea of repealing every executive order ever issued in American history.
“It’s a nice idea,” Paul said. “You would obviously have to look at all of the executive orders to see that there’s not something in there. But the thing is, you could sunset them all and really repeal them all, and then you could start over. And if there are any ones that are good, you could reinstitute things or ask Congress to reinstitute things that need to be done.”But did that mean Paul would be OK with nixing – temporarily, at least – President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation? Or what about President Truman’s order to desegregate the military?Paul’s eyes widened a bit, as if to confirm that he hadn’t quite thought it completely through.
The senator went on to say he doesn’t want to “repeal the Emancipation Proclamation and things like that” – a relief, to be sure – but concluded, “[T]he bottom line is it’s a generalized statement that I think too much is done by executive order, particularly under this president.”
Of course, “this president” has issued fewer executive orders, on average, than any president in over a century.
The underlying problem with Rand Paul’s argument – well, at least one of the underlying problems – is his apparent belief that executive orders are themselves awful. The senator hasn’t identified specific orders he considers offensive, instead criticizing the very existence of the presidential tool that dates back to 1789.
Indeed, it’s not just from the last few days. Paul was asked by a NPR affiliate in Kentucky last month whether he would, as president, ever issue an executive order. “Only to undo executive orders,” the Republican senator replied.
And that’s ultimately a foolish argument for a likely candidate to make.
As we discussed the other day, these orders are issued within the legal limits of the executive branch’s existing authority. The senator makes it sound as if a president can just issue any executive order he or she wishes, without regard for Congress legislative process, to create new laws on a whim. That’s simply not what this tool is all about.