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Grassley's 'gravely concerned' about executive orders

After 40 years of no real interest in executive orders, Iowa's Chuck Grassley is demanding answers from the Justice Department.
Senator Chuck Grassley, R-IA, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., February 13, 2013.
Senator Chuck Grassley, R-IA, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., February 13, 2013.
A week after President Obama announced he would issue an executive order on wages for government contractors, Republican outrage appears to be growing, not subsiding. Take Chuck Grassley, for example.

The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee called Monday for the Obama administration to lay clear its legal case in defense of the president's plan to tackle policy goals through executive actions. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is asking the Justice Department to disclose by Valentine's Day all of its "opinions, analyses and conclusions" in support of the president's authority to rely so heavily on the power of his office.

In his letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the Iowa Republican said, "I am gravely concerned that the system of checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution is threatened by the President's determination to take unilateral action if he cannot persuade Congress and the American people of the merits of his ideas."
It is, to be sure, an odd argument. For one thing, Obama's argument on the minimum wage has already proven persuasive to the vast majority of Americans. For another, Republicans haven't been able to point to a single instance in which the White House has threatened constitutional norms through executive orders.
But while Grassley is hardly the only Republican who finds himself apoplectic about this, the senator from Iowa does offer an interesting case study.
Grassley did post-graduate work in political science; he became a state lawmaker in 1959; he was elected to Congress four decades ago; and he's the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Presumably, he understands the basics of executive orders. With this in mind, after seeing his letter to Holder, I became curious: when did Grassley discover these grave concerns?
Over the course of his lengthy career on Capitol Hill, Grassley has seen seven different presidents govern: Ford, Carter, Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama. During that time, nearly 2,000 executive orders have been issued by the White House.
How many times has Grassley expressed "grave concerns" over the use of executive orders? How many times did he demand the Justice Department provide a defense for these orders' constitutionality?
As best as I can tell, never. There's a limit to the archival research from the earliest days of Grassley's congressional career, but after poking around Nexis and Google, I couldn't find any examples of the senator expressing outrage over executive orders until now. Indeed, even in Obama's first five years, when the president issued 168 orders -- fewer, on average, than any president in over a century -- Grassley never seemed inclined to raise a fuss. (Grassley was concerned Obama  might issue executive orders on gun safety, but Obama never actually issued any on the subject.)
It leads to a few possibilities. First, maybe the sudden Republican apoplexy is more about putting on a show over a manufactured outrage and less about a sincere argument over separation of powers. Second, perhaps GOP lawmakers en masse collectively woke up last week to discover their coordinated contempt for a routine presidential tool that dates back to George Washington.
Or third, maybe Republicans really, really hate minimum-wage increases.