An executive order is an official instruction, or directive, that the U.S. President issues to a federal agency (such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Defense). Article Two of the Constitution gives Presidents the power to carry out laws that Congress passes. Executive orders are basically a way to do this.
However, Presidents also sometimes also use executive orders to accomplish something when Congress refuses to pass a law. This can be pretty controversial: It’s supposed to be Congress’s job to make laws.
State governors can also executive orders, but the ones you hear about in the news almost always come from the President.
Executive orders are kind of like laws
Executive orders are as powerful as the laws that Congress passes. They’re not the same, since executive orders are only directed at federal agencies and not citizens. The President might order NASA to send a rocket to Mars, for example, and the agency would try to accomplish this.
Congress can pass a law that neutralizes an executive order. They can also refuse to fund it. (Most things the government does cost money, and Congress gets to decide how we spend it.)
The Supreme Court can also overturn an executive order that the Court thinks violates the Constitution. This is called Judicial Review.
When Congress won’t cooperate: Executive orders & the President’s agenda
Recently, our politics have been extremely divided. Democrats and Republicans do whatever they can to prevent each other from accomplishing what they want to accomplish. This isn’t just our leaders being stubborn: U.S. voters keep electing politicians who aren’t interested in compromise. All this means that Congress struggles to pass new laws.
One consequence of this kind of gridlock is that parties will use other routes to get stuff done. Executive orders are an example of an alternative route. 2 recent examples of this kind of executive order are
Both of these executive orders have been controversial, and have resulted in multiple court cases, appeals, and changes. This is normal of executive orders where the President tries to affect U.S. policy: The other party calls the executive orders an abuse of power, and sometimes the Supreme Court gets involved. It’s messy.
A very short history
Presidents have been taking executive action since George Washington. However, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that Presidents began using executive orders regularly. For example, Washington issued 8, and Abraham Lincoln issued 48. But then, after World War 2, the numbers skyrocket. Franklin D. Roosevelt has issued the most orders at 3,522. (He’s also the only President to be elected 4 times.) Here’s how many the last 3 Presidents have issued over each of their 8 years in office:
||# Executive orders
||1993 – 2001
|George W. Bush
||2001 – 2009
||2009 – 2017
Most famous executive orders
Maybe the most famous executive order was President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which ended slavery.
In 1942 during World War 2, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that led to Japanese Americans being imprisoned in internment camps.
President Harry Truman ended segregation in the military through executive order, and President Dwight Eisenhower desegregated schools.
Some executive orders are carried out in secret. In 2002, President Bush secretly ordered the National Security Agency to record phone calls that U.S. citizens made without a warrant. This has been controversial ever since.