By issuing his directives as "memoranda" rather than executive orders, Obama has downplayed the extent of his executive actions.
WASHINGTON — President Obama has issued a form of executive action known as the presidential memorandum more often than any other president in history — using it to take unilateral action even as he has signed fewer executive orders.
When these two forms of directives are taken together, Obama is on track to take more high-level executive actions than any president since Harry Truman battled the "Do Nothing Congress" almost seven decades ago, according to a USA TODAY review of presidential documents.
Obama has issued executive orders to give federal employees the day after Christmas off, to impose economic sanctions and to determine how national secrets are classified. He's used presidential memoranda to make policy on gun control, immigration and labor regulations. Tuesday, he used a memorandum to declare Bristol Bay, Alaska, off-limits to oil and gas exploration.
Like executive orders, presidential memoranda don't require action by Congress. They have the same force of law as executive orders and often have consequences just as far-reaching. And some of the most significant actions of the Obama presidency have come not by executive order but by presidential memoranda.
Obama has made prolific use of memoranda despite his own claims that he's used his executive power less than other presidents. "The truth is, even with all the actions I've taken this year, I'm issuing executive orders at the lowest rate in more than 100 years," Obama said in a speech in Austin last July. "So it's not clear how it is that Republicans didn't seem to mind when President Bush took more executive actions than I did."
Obama has issued 195 executive orders as of Tuesday. Published alongside them in the Federal Register are 198 presidential memoranda — all of which carry the same legal force as executive orders.
He's already signed 33% more presidential memoranda in less than six years than Bush did in eight. He's also issued 45% more than the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who assertively used memoranda to signal what kinds of regulations he wanted federal agencies to adopt.
Obama is not the first president to use memoranda to accomplish policy aims. But at this point in his presidency, he's the first to use them more often than executive orders.
"There's been a lot of discussion about executive orders in his presidency, and of course by sheer numbers he's had fewer than other presidents. So the White House and its defenders can say, 'He can't be abusing his executive authority; he's hardly using any orders," said Andrew Rudalevige, a presidency scholar at Bowdoin College. "But if you look at these other vehicles, he has been aggressive in his use of executive power."
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If you're tired of federal overreach -- especially overreach by the White House -- you're not alone. Fortunately, you can do something about it. A Convention of States can propose constitutional amendments to limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, including executive orders and memoranda.