No one would confuse Bill Clinton's scattershot White House with Richard M. Nixon's Imperial Presidency. But after months of hibernation following his party's November pasting, Clinton has discovered a potent weapon, one often brandished by Presidents to bypass an opposition-controlled Congress: executive fiat.
Clinton's Mar. 15 order to block Conoco Inc.'s Iranian oil deal is the latest unilateral Presidential initiative. On Jan. 31, the Clintonites agreed to prop up Mexico's tumbling peso by raiding a fund to stabilize the dollar--despite legal questions brought up by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and others. And on Mar. 8, Clinton prohibited federal contractors from permanently replacing striking workers. Coming after similar legislation was rejected by the last two Congresses, the order will give labor a tremendous boost, even while it infuriated Republicans. House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) blasted the action as a sign of "executive-branch arrogance."
Arrogance maybe. But the GOP won't be able to check Clinton's orders often. Indeed, in their first attempt to reverse the President, Senate GOPers on Mar. 15 fell one vote short of repealing the striker-replacement order.
With few exceptions, moreover, the courts have been loath to curb the broad authority granted the executive branch. Besides, Administration officials insist that they are careful not to overstep the legal bounds. "We make sure we're operating on safe and precedented ground," says White House Counsel Abner J. Mikva. For instance, Walter E. Dellinger III, head mf the Justice Dept.'s Office of Legal Counsel, notes that under U.S. procurement laws, Clinton's order on striker replacements was "the kind of condition the President can place on contracting." Nonetheless, on Mar. 15 business groups challenged the move in court, claiming it violates their rights under labor laws.
The Lone Ranger approach has other pitfalls. While Clinton has a strong enough Senate minority to counter most efforts to overturn his edicts, "when things go wrong, it's Clinton who will have egg on his face," notes the Congressional Research Service's Louis Fisher, a separation-of-powers expert.
And if the President moves too forcefully into the twilight zone where the executive and legislative branches share power, the GOP could punish him by stalling nominations and curbing his spending ability. That could damage both sides. "The American people want things to happen," says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution Presidential scholar. "If it's another form of gridlock, they all go down."
Despite the risk, Clinton in the future is likely to opt for more solo governing. Experts particularly expect more moves--like the striker-replacement order--intended to shore up the crumbling Democratic voter base. And if the GOP hands Clinton the line-item veto, as the Contract With America promises, his hand will be further strengthened.
But over the long haul, government-by-fiat may not turn out to be a sound strategy. It invites "those who oppose you to overturn you," says Roger B. Porter, a veteran of three GOP White Houses. If Clinton overreaches, even congressional Democrats could end up feeling undercut. The result: Partisan loyalties could yield to turf fights, creating stunning defeats for Clinton. It's a threat the White House ignores at its peril.
TELLING CONGRESS TO DROP DEAD
1793 NEUTRALITY PROCLAMATION Washington announces neutrality in the war between England and France
1863 EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION Lincoln frees slaves. Two years later, the 13th Amendment bars slavery.
1942 EXECUTIVE ORDER 9066 Roosevelt interns Japanese-Americans. The Supreme Court backs him.
1952 EXECUTIVE ORDER 10340 Truman seizes the stell mills; he is later overtruned by the Supreme Court.
1995 EXECUTIVE ORDER 12954 Clinton bars most federal contractors from hiring permanent replacements.