Prepared by Flinders Washington Internship students 2016.
Week one of the Washington Internship Program catapulted us fresh-faced, eager interns right into the middle of political mayhem. On Tuesday 5 January, President Obama announced his intention to issue a series of executive orders intended to reduce gun violence and increase safety for all American communities. The orders included clarification of when background checks are required for purchasing and selling firearms; delegating funding to assist those with serious mental illnesses; and promoting smart gun technology.
Executive orders (or actions/measures) are used by the President to achieve policy goals, which can often involve contentious matters subject to high levels of both public and government scrutiny. They are not a defined power of the President in the Constitution, but are an accepted practice holding the full force of the law when exercised correctly. The debate of their constitutional validity arose this week as many political commentators question if executive orders encroach on the powers of Congress and thus contravene the separation of powers, or if the President has the power to interfere with the rights of private citizens.
Where Congress supports the orders, they can enact legislation to codify them to solidify their legal effect. Alternatively Congress can repeal an executive order by enacting legislation that removes any legal effect of the order; however that would eventuate into a congressional override of a presidential veto. Congress may also use its appropriations authority to withhold funds for implementing the order. Administrations may modify or revoke a preceding President’s executive orders, which is what makes this exercise of power so unstable.
The newspaper and TV news headlines this week paraded the extreme ends of the political spectrum; however the constituent callers provide a deeper insight into the diverse reactions of local communities to the actions of the President. While the Democrats have been generally supportive and positive of the executive actions, opinions from the Republicans range from utterly disgusted and outraged, to begrudging acceptance. A few have been whole-heartedly in support of the measures, while others have demanded impeachment proceedings be instigated against the President.
We couldn’t have expected the keen participation of constituents in American politics – many are very familiar with the legislation being introduced in the House and are aware of their Representative’s policies and proposed bills, while others just want an audience to express their dissatisfaction with the system, their member or a policy. We have also seen that many constituents will call or write to express their support for their Representative, and encourage the member to keep doing a great job. It has been a stark contrast to the often flippant nature of Australian constituents.
We look forward to the dynamic experience ahead of us.
Visit the Washington Internship site for more information on this unique program.