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Can We Talk Calmly About Obama's 'Executive Orders'?

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You may be perplexed about President Obama's recent actions aimed at promoting gun safety. One of the leading scholars of separation of powers, Peter M. Shane, has set out a calm analysis of Obama's actions here. The president signed three, not 23, executive orders, he notes. Shane's most important point is this:

What executive orders cannot do is impose obligations or restrictions on the public, unless Congress, through legislation, has expressly or implicitly conferred authority on the President to do so. It is worth noting that none of President Obama's executive orders on gun violence do any such things.

The opposition has many criticisms of the specifics of Obama's actions. Fair enough; that's part of the ongoing debate about the proper regulation of firearms. But some on the right like to claim that "executive orders" in themselves are lawless.

If so, that would have come as news to George Washington -- who issued, among dozens of proclamations, eight executive orders of the kind we recognize today -- and to every president since. 

What is the president's job? He is the holder of "the executive power" and has the duty to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." It would be childish to believe that statutes, once passed by Congress, somehow carry themselves out while the president greets Little League teams in the Rose Garden. New criminal statutes must be enforced; new conditional spending grants must be administered; new programs must be assigned to government departments for administration; new policies must be carried out by government employees on the ground. 

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