Truth v. Myth: Biden Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity takes on Trump EO on same(?)

Posted on February 1, 2021. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, three branches of government, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , |

As 2020 drew to a close, we did a Truth v. Myth close-reading series on the Trump Administration’s September 22, 2020 Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping.

Today, as 2021 rolls into its second month, we bookend that series with this: an examination of the Biden Administration’s January 20, 2021 Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, which you can find here on the official White House site.

As you’ll recall, the Trump Order was a naked attempt to misrepresent anti-racist diversity training in government and education as a “destructive ideology”. As we say in part 2 of our previous series:

“This destructive ideology is grounded in misrepresentations of our country’s history and its role in the world. Although presented as new and revolutionary, they resurrect the discredited notions of the nineteenth century’s apologists for slavery who, like President Lincoln’s rival Stephen A. Douglas, maintained that our government “was made on the white basis” “by white men, for the benefit of white men.” Our Founding documents rejected these racialized views of America, which were soundly defeated on the blood-stained battlefields of the Civil War. Yet they are now being repackaged and sold as cutting-edge insights. They are designed to divide us and to prevent us from uniting as one people in pursuit of one common destiny for our great country.”

–The duplicity here makes one want to cry out. Here is the pretzel: acknowledging racism at work in America today is actually racist. To bring up race is, somehow, to have a “racialized view” of America, and, beyond that, to bring up racism is to be an apologist for slavery… Fighting racism and working for civil rights is also not racist. To claim that fighting racism forces people to think about race, and only race, and therefore is racist, can only be the product of a deep stupidity or a deep evil. It’s very hard to say which would be worse.

It’s unclear how much traction this Order got, since it was issued in September 2020 and now a new Administration has begun, so it’s not clear how much damage has to be undone. But let’s take a look through the new Biden Order and see what it holds, starting with Section 1: Policy.

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered: 

Section 1. Policy. Equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy, and our diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths.  But for too many, the American Dream remains out of reach.  Entrenched disparities in our laws and public policies, and in our public and private institutions, have often denied that equal opportunity to individuals and communities.  Our country faces converging economic, health, and climate crises that have exposed and exacerbated inequities, while a historic movement for justice has highlighted the unbearable human costs of systemic racism.  Our Nation deserves an ambitious whole-of-government equity agenda that matches the scale of the opportunities and challenges that we face.

–Just about every new attempt at guaranteeing civil rights in America begins with an encouraging statement about how much we’ve already done, how peerless we are as a nation in working to offer liberty and justice to all. Sometimes this can have the chilling effect of making the new call for action seem like an extra, a nice-to-have rather than a need-to-have in a country where fundamental justice is already established, and now we just want to tie up a few minor loose ends.

This Order, then, is refreshing in its limiting that encouragement to a single short sentence and then moving on to acknowledge in plain language that we are not doing well enough, we are not in a good place and just need a slight push to an even better place. We have slipped backward in America over the past 40 years, as the backlash against the civil and human rights wins of the 1950s-70s began with Reagan and relentlessly gained momentum wit the help of both Bush presidencies, the Tea Party during the Obama presidency, and the Trump presidency. Those who call liberty and justice for all treason led an attack on our Capitol on January 6, 2021, and their supporters and members in Congress sit safely, in no fear of censure from their colleagues, refusing to impeach President Donald Trump for inciting a treasonous coup. We’re in a very dangerous place and that has not come out of the blue. Complacency about how strong our democracy is allowed too many Americans to treat right-wing extremism as normal and powerless, even as its basic structures fell apart.

A case in point is the very Executive Order we’re reviewing here. The Executive Branch–the presidency–does not legislate in our three-branch system. The Legislature–Congress–writes and passes laws. The Judiciary–the courts–test whether those laws are constitutional, and can overturn them if not. The president does not have the power to write laws. They do have the power to write Executive Orders: directives describing how laws should be enforced. They are part of the president’s discretionary power. No EO can violate the Constitution, and all EOs are subject to Judiciary review to make sure that they don’t. Basically, once a law is passed, an EO can determine how, and how seriously, it will be enforced.

Most presidents use EOs are low-key and uncontroversial: formalities (to inaugurate Presidential Commissions or Presidential Advisory Councils, for instance); to designate emergencies (declaring a city or region a disaster area after a hurricane or flood), to award an honorary medal (the Purple Heart) or to create task forces (for ecosystem restoration or terrorism prevention).

Other EOs are major: Trump’s “Muslim ban” of January 2107 prevented citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. until it was overturned as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in June 2018.

EOs remain in force until they’re canceled by the president who issued them, or their successor; they’re found to be unconstitutional by the courts; or they hit their expiration date (if they have one). And therein lies the problem we are experiencing, and the challenge to our democracy. During the Obama presidency, the use of EOs fundamentally changed for the worse.

Faced with a Republican-led Congress that openly stated its intention to block any legislation the Democrats introduced, President Obama began writing Executive Orders to get around Congress. A good example is his EO to grant limited amnesty to illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors (the “Dreamers”). Congress would not pass immigration law that protected this population, so Obama went around Congress. While the end goal was just and good, this use of the EO was dangerous because it set protections in place that were then quickly and easily overturned by the next president. It also allowed Congress to abdicate its role of writing laws. This erases the check between Legislature and Executive, and allows Congress to remain impotent and harmful. Whether an EO promotes justice or obstructs it, it cannot and should not substitute for legislation.

When it does, we go into a deadly pendulum-swing, where a Democratic president signs Orders that are then revoked by a Republican president, who then signs new Orders that are revoked by a Democratic president, and so on. Real American lives are impacted, as protections come and go. And Congress lies stagnant and dormant, refusing to take action. Americans begin to look to the president for laws. This is not how our system works. It turns the president into a monarch or a dictator.

So while we applaud this Biden EO so far, the fact that the first thing the new president did was sign 19 EOs, many of them deliberately overturning Trump EOs, is unsettling. The one we’re examining now is a case in point: this Biden EO on Advancing Racial Equity seems clearly positioned to overturn the Trump EO on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping. The nation cannot be whipsawed back and forth between policies for decades without our very democratic system deteriorating under the strain and the neglect.

With all that said, we’re going to keep close-reading this EO, but in the back of our minds we know how fleeting it may turn out to be, and how negative and anti-democratic an EO it may provoke from the next Republican president in 4 or 8 years.

It is therefore the policy of my Administration that the Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.  Affirmatively advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our Government.  Because advancing equity requires a systematic approach to embedding fairness in decision-making processes, executive departments and agencies (agencies) must recognize and work to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity.

–This is a welcome return to logic, history, and reality after the double-speak of the Trump EO. Here, the obvious is acknowledged: America has allowed systemic, institutional racism to create inequality of opportunity for those who are not white. This honest assessment was rejected by the Trump EO as a “malign ideology [now] migrating from the fringes of American society and threatens to infect core institutions of our country. Instructors and materials teaching that men and members of certain races, as well as our most venerable institutions, are inherently sexist and racist are appearing in workplace diversity trainings across the country, even in components of the Federal Government and among Federal contractors.” As we said then, we say now, that this is more of the same idea that acknowledging race and racism is racist, that we should all be allowed to be “color-blind”. This phrase, as used in this Order, represents a false assumption, which is that America, or at least most Americans, are not racist and do not ever made judgments about people based on their race. Therefore, being told to think about race is ruining this paradise by introducing race-based thinking, and therefore, racism.

Again, it’s a visceral relief to read the Biden EO, but one tempered by the knowledge that this is just an Executive Order, not a law passed by our Congress, and therefore it’s a frail and temporary bulwark against injustice.

By advancing equity across the Federal Government, we can create opportunities for the improvement of communities that have been historically underserved, which benefits everyone.  For example, an analysis shows that closing racial gaps in wages, housing credit, lending opportunities, and access to higher education would amount to an additional $5 trillion in gross domestic product in the American economy over the next 5 years.  The Federal Government’s goal in advancing equity is to provide everyone with the opportunity to reach their full potential.  Consistent with these aims, each agency must assess whether, and to what extent, its programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups.  Such assessments will better equip agencies to develop policies and programs that deliver resources and benefits equitably to all.

–It’s depressing that the idea that helping the poor helps everyone is so often rejected by Americans today, while the idea that helping the rich helps everyone is so eagerly embraced. Here, the Biden EO frames equality of opportunity in positive economic terms to help reach those who believe that rich Americans should fund economic growth (through “trickle-down” or “job creation”) out of their largess, which requires the rich to become even richer, to even astronomical levels. Instead, all Americans could help each other, which redistributes not wealth, but the opportunity to gain wealth, to all.

How can advancing racial equity make this happen? We’ll find out next time.

Next time: Section 2 – definitions

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The three branches of government, hammered out in the Federalist debates

Posted on May 31, 2019. Filed under: Colonial America, Politics, The Founders, three branches of government, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , |

Rerunning our series on the Federalist debates; hello and welcome to part 7 of what is becoming a monumental overview on the conversation that gave us our present Constitution. Rest assured that we’re closing in on the resolution of those debates, but for now, here we take a brief detour on the way to talking about how representation in the House and Senate was hammered out to discuss the three branches of government. (Again we are indebted to the powerhouse lectures on the Federalist debates of Dr. Thomas Pangle, UT Austin, for the flow of our series.)

The “three branches of government” is a phrase we all learn and know as Americans, and may be the one thing we all feel sure we understand about how our federal government works. There are three branches so that each can check and balance each other’s power. Ah, “checks and balances”—the companion to the three branches. No one part of the government can become too strong with this system.

But this is not really very intuitive. Why would one part of the government become too strong in the first place, and if all three branches are able to interfere with each other, why don’t you just get chaos? How can one branch operate if the other branches can check its power?

The Anti-Federalists were aware of this conundrum: checks on power is actually a kind of sharing of power. Why do the powers of the three branches overlap, Anti-Federalists asked? Why can the Executive (President) legislate with veto power, and act judicially with the power to pardon criminals? Why is the Legislature (Congress)  given judicial power to impeach the Executive? Why can the Legislature take on Executive power by giving the president “advice and consent” on treaties and other foreign policy, and by approving presidential cabinet appointees? And why does the Judiciary (particularly the Supreme Court) have the legislative power to write new laws?

Why not just have each branch do its own work, the Anti-Federalists proposed, and if we parcel out the powers between the branches correctly, there will be no problem with one branch becoming too powerful.

The Federalist reply was, again, as it so often was, based on an understanding of human nature. Human beings, they said, are combative and competitive. You can’t group humans into three branches of government and expect them to remain separate but equal. Inevitably, one branch will want to be the most powerful. Balance is very hard to achieve; that’s why you need checks. And the way to create real checks is to allow the branches to share some powers, to overlap in some ways, so that they must cooperate with each other sometimes. Knowing they have to cooperate with each other will be a counterbalance—or check—on the competition between the branches. To keep one branch from becoming all-powerful, the other branches have to have an inside track on it, some way to check its power. If the President didn’t have veto power, the Executive would inevitably become subordinate to the Legislature, as Congress would be able to ignore what the President wanted and duke it out with the Judiciary alone, because only the Judiciary would have the power to overturn laws. If Congress didn’t have the power to impeach the President, and the Judiciary had no way to check presidential power, then the Executive would begin to be dominant, and the president would become a tyrant/king.

As Madison puts it in Federalist Paper 51:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of [power] in [one branch of government], consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other — that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.

In short, one of the ways in which the new American republic was new and innovative was that it did not rely on having a perfect citizenry or government filled with republican virtue. The new American republic would work with human nature to better it. Instead of constantly trying to avoid conflict, our government would welcome it. If the very structure of our government includes, even depends on, conflict and competition between its branches, then the whole question of checking federal power is turned upside down: instead of having people outside the federal government (the states) constantly monitoring the federal government to make sure it’s not too powerful, and trying to reform the federal government from the outside to end its tyranny, the federal government will check itself. The federal government checks its own power by competing with itself, by having the three branches constantly making sure no one branch is too powerful. And as long as the three branches are functioning the way the Constitution says they should, they will not become corrupted and they will carry out the laws of the Constitution and we won’t have a problem with tyranny.

The key is that the Constitution as the Federalists proposed and wrote it laid out powers for the three branches that were fair and democratic. The only way the federal government could become tyrannical would be if its branches did not obey the Constitution. That would not happen, the Federalists said, with each branch being forced to obey the Constitution by the overlap of powers with other branches that would come down hard on each other if one started to get too powerful. No one branch’s members would sit back while another branch got more powerful. Thus constant competition means constant checking of power which means constant obedience to a just Constitution.

Dividing the Legislature into two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate, was an example of this. The biggest worry for both Federalists and Anti-Federalists (though Federalists worried about it more) was that Congress was most likely to become tyrannical because a) it was the only branch that could make laws, and b) it was the branch that the people had direct control over (remember that the Electoral College takes precedence over the popular vote in a presidential election, so electors chosen by the few, and not the common people, ultimately decide, to this day, who becomes president). The House was particularly troubling: the Constitution proposed that each state have two Senators, but the number of Representatives would be based on population, and was bound to soar past the number of Senators. Even in 1787 it was very clear that one day the U.S. House would have hundreds and hundreds of members. The House, therefore, was most vulnerable to becoming tyrannical. It would be the largest branch of government, and it would be directly elected by the people, who would never agree to its power being checked because that would be their power being checked.

So the Congress was divided in a way that satisfied the people’s demand for direct representatives (House) but also allowed a smaller body (Senate) the power to overturn House rulings. Bills generally originate in the House and then go to the Senate. The entire House might approve a bill, all 435 Representatives might vote yes, but if just two-thirds of the 50 Senators vote against it, the bill is dead. The people’s voice is heard in the House, but the voice of that educated elite, the most virtuous republican citizens who devote themselves to public service, ultimately calls the shots.

The only way for the House to get its way is to—you guessed it—cooperate with the Senate, to check its own power and work out a compromise the Senate will accept. What keeps the Senate, then, from becoming the tyrannical branch? Bills don’t aways originate in the House, so when the Senate passes a motion that goes to the House and is rejected, then the Senate has to compromise. But since most bills do originate in the House, the more common way of checking Senate power is that Senators don’t want to be seen as always contradicting the people’s voice (as represented by the House), and so will find ways to compromise with the House rather than constantly shoot it down.

With the Legislature divided and set in competition with itself, the fear that the Congress, especially the House, would become tyrannical was allayed. With its basic structure out of the way, now we can address the question of how the House and Senate would be composed so that they would fairly represent the American people… and what the definition of “the American people” should be.

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The Federalist Debate over the three branches of government

Posted on February 26, 2014. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 7 of what is becoming a monumental series on the Federalist debates that gave us our present Constitution. Rest assured that we’re closing in on the resolution of those debates, but for now, here we take a brief detour on the way to talking about how representation in the House and Senate was hammered out to discuss the three branches of government. (Again we are indebted to the powerhouse lectures on the Federalist debates of Dr. Thomas Pangle, UT Austin, for the flow of our series.)

The “three branches of government” is a phrase we all learn and know as Americans, and may be the one thing we all feel sure we understand about how our federal government works. There are three branches so that each can check and balance each other’s power. Ah, “checks and balances”—the companion to the three branches. No one part of the government can become too strong with this system.

But this is not really very intuitive. Why would one part of the government become too strong in the first place, and if all three branches are able to interfere with each other, why don’t you just get chaos? How can one branch operate if the other branches can check its power?

The Anti-Federalists were aware of this conundrum: checks on power is actually a kind of sharing of power. Why do the powers of the three branches overlap, Anti-Federalists asked? Why can the Executive (President) legislate with veto power, and act judicially with the power to pardon criminals? Why is the Legislature (Congress)  given judicial power to impeach the Executive? Why can the Legislature take on Executive power by giving the president “advice and consent” on treaties and other foreign policy, and by approving presidential cabinet appointees? And why does the Judiciary (particularly the Supreme Court) have the legislative power to write new laws?

Why not just have each branch do its own work, the Anti-Federalists proposed, and if we parcel out the powers between the branches correctly, there will be no problem with one branch becoming too powerful.

The Federalist reply was, again, as it so often was, based on an understanding of human nature. Human beings, they said, are combative and competitive. You can’t group humans into three branches of government and expect them to remain separate but equal. Inevitably, one branch will want to be the most powerful. Balance is very hard to achieve; that’s why you need checks. And the way to create real checks is to allow the branches to share some powers, to overlap in some ways, so that they must cooperate with each other sometimes. Knowing they have to cooperate with each other will be a counterbalance—or check—on the competition between the branches. To keep one branch from becoming all-powerful, the other branches have to have an inside track on it, some way to check its power. If the President didn’t have veto power, the Executive would inevitably become subordinate to the Legislature, as Congress would be able to ignore what the President wanted and duke it out with the Judiciary alone, because only the Judiciary would have the power to overturn laws. If Congress didn’t have the power to impeach the President, and the Judiciary had no way to check presidential power, then the Executive would begin to be dominant, and the president would become a tyrant/king.

As Madison puts it in Federalist Paper 51:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of [power] in [one branch of government], consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other — that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.

In short, one of the ways in which the new American republic was new and innovative was that it did not rely on having a perfect citizenry or government filled with republican virtue. The new American republic would work with human nature to better it. Instead of constantly trying to avoid conflict, our government would welcome it. If the very structure of our government includes, even depends on, conflict and competition between its branches, then the whole question of checking federal power is turned upside down: instead of having people outside the federal government (the states) constantly monitoring the federal government to make sure it’s not too powerful, and trying to reform the federal government from the outside to end its tyranny, the federal government will check itself. The federal government checks its own power by competing with itself, by having the three branches constantly making sure no one branch is too powerful. And as long as the three branches are functioning the way the Constitution says they should, they will not become corrupted and they will carry out the laws of the Constitution and we won’t have a problem with tyranny.

The key is that the Constitution as the Federalists proposed and wrote it laid out powers for the three branches that were fair and democratic. The only way the federal government could become tyrannical would be if its branches did not obey the Constitution. That would not happen, the Federalists said, with each branch being forced to obey the Constitution by the overlap of powers with other branches that would come down hard on each other if one started to get too powerful. No one branch’s members would sit back while another branch got more powerful. Thus constant competition means constant checking of power which means constant obedience to a just Constitution.

Dividing the Legislature into two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate, was an example of this. The biggest worry for both Federalists and Anti-Federalists (though Federalists worried about it more) was that Congress was most likely to become tyrannical because a) it was the only branch that could make laws, and b) it was the branch that the people had direct control over (remember that the Electoral College takes precedence over the popular vote in a presidential election, so electors chosen by the few, and not the common people, ultimately decide, to this day, who becomes president). The House was particularly troubling: the Constitution proposed that each state have two Senators, but the number of Representatives would be based on population, and was bound to soar past the number of Senators. Even in 1787 it was very clear that one day the U.S. House would have hundreds and hundreds of members. The House, therefore, was most vulnerable to becoming tyrannical. It would be the largest branch of government, and it would be directly elected by the people, who would never agree to its power being checked because that would be their power being checked.

So the Congress was divided in a way that satisfied the people’s demand for direct representatives (House) but also allowed a smaller body (Senate) the power to overturn House rulings. Bills generally originate in the House and then go to the Senate. The entire House might approve a bill, all 435 Representatives might vote yes, but if just two-thirds of the 50 Senators vote against it, the bill is dead. The people’s voice is heard in the House, but the voice of that educated elite, the most virtuous republican citizens who devote themselves to public service, ultimately calls the shots.

The only way for the House to get its way is to—you guessed it—cooperate with the Senate, to check its own power and work out a compromise the Senate will accept. What keeps the Senate, then, from becoming the tyrannical branch? Bills don’t aways originate in the House, so when the Senate passes a motion that goes to the House and is rejected, then the Senate has to compromise. But since most bills do originate in the House, the more common way of checking Senate power is that Senators don’t want to be seen as always contradicting the people’s voice (as represented by the House), and so will find ways to compromise with the House rather than constantly shoot it down.

With the Legislature divided and set in competition with itself, the fear that the Congress, especially the House, would become tyrannical was allayed. With its basic structure out of the way, now we can address the question of how the House and Senate would be composed so that they would fairly represent the American people… and what the definition of “the American people” should be.

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