The Washington Post

Republicans say Obama’s use of executive power is ‘unprecedented.’ The data say otherwise.

'Lawless.' 'Menacing.' 'Unprecedented.' That's how detractors have described Obama's pen-and-phone strategy to promote his legislative agenda in the absence of Congressional action. While the rhetoric is ferocious, the data paint a decidedly softer picture of Obama's use of executive power.

For starters, Obama has been much more reluctant to rely on executive orders than any of his predecessors, going all the way back to Grover Cleveland. Congressional Republicans' claims of 'tyranny' on this point are particularly rich, considering that historically, Republican presidents have been more reliant on executive orders than their Democratic counterparts.

Obama has also come under fire for the use of federal regulations under his watch, but here again the rhetoric is at odds with the data. A 2012 report from the left-leaning OMB Watch ran the numbers and found "little difference between the Obama administration and past administrations in their overall level of regulatory activity."

A simple count of regulations is a fairly crude barometer of executive power. One way to improve this measure would be to consider only 'significant' regulations – those expected to have an economic impact greater than $100 million. And even on this measure, Obama has yet to make a major departure from his predecessors.

I tallied data on final regulations from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) and found that Obama has issued an average of 56 economically significant regulations per year during his time in office. This is greater than Clinton or George W. Bush, but similar to the annual average under George H. W. Bush – hardly anyone's idea of an overbearing executive.

economically significant regulations

It's worth noting that the marker for "economic significance" has been set at the $100 million threshold since 1978. Adjusted for inflation that number would stand at $364 million today, likely lowering Obama's numbers relative to his predecessors.

Granted, much of the concern is focused on Obama's actions going forward, and indeed it will be interesting to return to these numbers a year from now to see how they've changed. But for the time being there's little in the data to suggest the unprecedented departure from tradition that Obama's opponents have claimed.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.



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Andrea Peterson · February 11, 2014

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