When President Joe Biden was inaugurated on January 20th, it seemed that he barely finished his speech before picking up a pen to sign 17 executive orders the same day. As of early March, he almost doubled this number to 33, according to MarketWatch. This activity is good enough to break the record for the most executive orders enacted in the first month of a presidency, beating Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 30 in 1933. It’s important to look past the sheer number of orders, impressive though it may be, and explore what actually will happen as a result of this legislation.
First, what should Americans be paying attention to concerning these new presidential actions? Surprisingly, few of these orders accomplish much in terms of actual policy but instead request research on potential changes that Biden could pursue later in his presidency. While this is normal for executive orders, directives that either create committees, such as the COVID-19 Equity Task Force, or focus on political points of interest, such as the “Executive Order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation,” often don’t affect average American life. Instead, they typically reveal the ways the Biden Administration is going to frame their mission and how they’ll achieve their policy agenda.
There are four pieces of legislation that Biden signed into action that are arguably the most impactful. The first of these four revoked the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would increase fuel intake from Canada. As environmentalists have argued for over a decade, the pipeline has an inherent carbon footprint. Though this footprint seems to be marginal compared to the world and even the US carbon pollution totals, this seemed to be against the Biden Administration’s expected stance, clearing the path for this executive order’s January 20th signing. On the same day, the next notable order came in the form of a reversal of Trump’s travel and visa restrictions on Muslim countries. Though a similar move was mulled over during the Obama Administration to increase security, the stance was quickly deemed discriminatory by the Democratic Party once passed by Trump and ended up on Biden’s political chopping block. Five days later, the third major order was put into action, this time regarding transgender issues, lifting restrictions on transgender people who wish to serve in the military. Based on a general medical consensus suggesting those who are undergoing a gender transition aren’t fit to serve in the military, transgender people were allowed to serve in the military even before Biden’s election, though they were required to serve as their biological gender and were disqualified if they were currently undergoing transitional procedures. Though Biden references a study suggesting that transgender people serving would have “minimal impact” on the US military’s performance, it’s unclear how many Americans were actually affected by this policy in the first place and if the current transgender restrictions were truly unreasonable. Finally, the fourth important policy intends to end any existing contracts between the Department of Justice and private prisons when they expire. Since private prisons held about 8.2% or 121,718 of United States prisoners in 2017, it appears that the Biden Administration might be planning some sort of prison reform or an extension of the public prison system in the future. After all, thousands of prisoners won’t vanish once their private prisons’ contracts expire.
Overall, although a few legislative splashes occur here and there, the record-breaking number of executive orders appears to be mostly messages of intention from the Biden Administration and cancellation of some Trump policies. Presidents commonly employ the power of executive order in this way. Professor of government Andy Rudalevige states, “A lot of what these orders consist of are plans to make plans.” This means that Biden won’t necessarily complete plans he may have through executive orders, since that often borders on unconstitutionality. Instead, he seems to start the process of reviewing potential policy changes, tucking away what he may find for the future. Despite signaling early action, the Biden Administration appears to merely be preparing themselves for the long haul of his four-year term.