The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Youngkin’s use of executive orders to appease the GOP base comes with many downsides

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) signs executive actions in the Virginia Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 15. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

How a new governor begins an administration sets the tone for his or her leadership over the ensuing four years. It is during this “honeymoon” period that the governor has the best opportunity to signal that the time for the divisive politics of campaigning is over and to build coalitions on key issues with legislators of both parties.

By charging into office on Day One loaded with executive actions on divisive issues, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has taken a very different approach, one that, unfortunately, draws partisan lines, stokes further division and complicates any efforts he now may make to build bipartisan coalitions. Democratic leaders who had signaled during the transition their eagerness to work with the new administration on key issues are now in full-fight mode, extolling how their big Blue Wall will resist the new administration at almost every turn.

It’s tempting, of course, for a new governor to do a bit of Inauguration Day theater by taking executive actions on notable campaign promises. These actions may please a new governor’s base for the moment. However, on more weighty policy initiatives that need time-consuming legislation, executive actions can be ineffective, heavy with political messaging but lacking in specific direction and enforceability.

Manifestly political executive orders and executive directives can exist in a sort of legal limbo and create administrative quagmires, as Youngkin has already learned. That is especially true with orders directed at independent local school boards.

The governor signed 11 executive actions on Inauguration Day. Nine were executive orders, which carry the force of law but do not supersede statutory law enacted by the General Assembly. Two were executive directives, which are gubernatorial instructions that are binding on agencies of the executive branch of state government.

One of the new governor’s executive orders seeks to strike down coronavirus-related mandates for students, faculty and staff in public K-12 schools to wear face coverings to slow the spread of the virus — an order issued during the disease’s worst surge since the pandemic began two years ago. A state law passed in 2021 allows but does not direct school districts to adopt coronavirus guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Responses to that order have varied widely over the past week among school districts statewide, from acceptance in some districts, where the decision of whether to make students wear masks was shifted to their parents, to litigation by school boards and even Chesapeake Public Schools parents challenging Youngkin’s order.

Another executive order creating confusion is one that prohibits the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts including Critical Race Theory.” CRT is a college-level academic concept rooted in the premise that structural racism is baked into American laws and institutions.

The problem is that every school district in the commonwealth says CRT is not in their curriculums. In his inaugural speech, Youngkin said Virginia schools would teach all our history, “the good and the bad.” But that and his executive order leave school boards, administrators and teachers scratching their heads, some perhaps vetting their textbooks, lesson plans and classroom practices for anything that might fall under a broad interpretation of being inherently divisive. Might that include the history of slavery and the Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, the civil rights movement and the protests of 2020 that followed the murder of George Floyd?

Executive actions give the appearance of change but lack the lasting impact of legislation, and they’ve been increasingly overused by governors (and in the White House). What one governor commands can be voided on the next governor’s Day One.

The pushback Youngkin is getting from schools and the Blue Wall of Senate Democrats evidences the limits of his ability to get things done by executive orders. Instead, regarding the anti-masking order, he ignited a counter-mobilization of those angry with his actions that please the most Trumpian of Trump enthusiasts but ultimately undermine public health and safety.

Even politically experienced governors face a learning curve. Youngkin entered office from the world of finance with no prior elective or political experience. It’s not easy to tell someone who succeeded in business and is accustomed to issuing commands and having them heeded instantly that government doesn’t work that way.

The art of negotiation and persuasion that it takes to move independently elected officials who have their own separate constituencies is what comprises the difficult but necessary work of governing. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who also entered the office after a long and successful business career, needed a year or two to learn that lesson when he became governor 20 years ago.

The unilateral actions Youngkin took on his first day may appeal to Republican primary voters in a few years, but they are no substitute for more permanent statutory change. They damaged his chances of establishing common cause with Senate Democrats who were willing to work with him in some areas he had prioritized, particularly tax cuts and education reforms. And if an executive order turns out to do more harm than good, the governor alone shoulders the blame, unshared with a legislative body or another party.

The bottom line for all new governors: A heavy reliance on ruling by executive power alone early in the term is not a sustainable model for governing over the next four years. Indeed, it makes the difficult task of governing even more complicated.