WASHINGTON — Frustrated by a GOP-controlled Congress that lately has rebuffed him on almost every front, President Clinton plans a blitz of executive orders during the next few weeks, part of a White House strategy to make progress on Clinton's domestic agenda with or without congressional help.
His first unilateral strike will come today. According to a draft of Clinton's weekly radio address obtained by The Times, he plans to announce a new federal regulation requiring warning labels on containers of fruit and vegetable juices that have not been pasteurized. Congress has not fully funded Clinton's $101-million food safety initiative, which among other things would pay for inspectors to ensure that tainted foods from other countries do not reach American consumers.
After that initiative, Clinton will take executive actions later in the week that are intended to improve health care and cut juvenile crime, according to a senior White House official.
While not far-reaching, Clinton's proposals are intended to make gradual progress on largely popular social reforms until Republicans in Congress start to cooperate--or lose power after the November elections.
"He's ready to work with Congress if they will work with him. But if they choose partisanship, he will choose progress," said Rahm Emanuel, senior policy advisor to the president.
The power to issue executive orders originally was intended to give presidents rule-making authority over the executive branch. But many have used it instead for sweeping public policy decisions.
Fresh from what aides view as a triumphant trip to China, Clinton is reportedly eager to exercise his executive powers to the hilt.
"He always comes back from these trips with a big head of steam, and this trip has been especially remarkable," said Paul Begala, another senior advisor. "This president has a very strong sense of the powers of the presidency, and is willing to use all of them."
Mindful of the recent Supreme Court decision striking down the line-item veto authority Clinton won last term, the president also hopes his executive-order offensive will pressure Congress to enact his legislative priorities, Emanuel said. "I am doing what I can to protect our families from contaminated food," Clinton says in the draft of today's radio address. "But Congress must do its part."
The latest series of executive orders is illustrative of a president who has used his unilateral authority more robustly and frequently than most of his predecessors.
Just last month, after the Senate rejected sweeping anti-smoking legislation, Clinton announced a survey on what cigarette brands teenagers smoke--in hopes of shaming the tobacco companies into getting serious about cutting teen smoking.
On the same day, eager to make health care fixes that Congress has not, he announced new coverage under the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly and charged federal agencies with signing up millions more poor children for Medicaid.
Some in Congress have argued that Clinton's use of executive authority has gone too far, and several outside critics agree. "Clinton is pushing the envelope," says David Schoenbrod, a professor at New York Law School who is an expert is the field. "He's consistently trying to take more power than Congress gives him.".
With most of his executive orders, no matter how incremental, Clinton hopes to prod Congress to pass more ambitious versions. For instance, last year he extended broader family leave provisions for federal employees while pushing Congress to pass legislation to provide similar opportunities for all other workers.
Clinton forewarned the country about his zeal for exercising executive powers in his 1992 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, saying: "President Bush: If you won't use your power to help people, step aside, I will."
Of course, other presidents have used executive authority to meet their policy goals. Abraham Lincoln used it to declare the slaves free. Franklin D. Roosevelt used it to help set up the New Deal. Harry S. Truman used it to integrate the armed forces.
But Clinton has rewritten the manual on how to use executive powers with gusto, some professors and analysts argue. His formula includes pressing the limits of his regulatory authority, signing executive orders and using other unilateral means to obtain his policy priorities when Congress fails to embrace them.
Clearly, the growing antagonism between the president and Congress makes it likely that Clinton will continue to govern by fiat.
"It depends on the political environment whether presidents push their limits or not," said Marci Hamilton, professor of constitutional law at Cardozo Law School in New York. "Clinton has more incentive to do it because he's stuck with a Congress that is not politically aligned with him."