What is an Executive Order?

Executive Orders

In the United States, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government work together to create a balance of power. The Constitution formed these three branches of government to keep each other in check and ensure one branch does not become too powerful.

Each branch of government has responsibilities when it comes to making laws. The legislative branch proposes laws, the executive branch carries out and enforces laws, and the judicial branch reviews laws to ensure they are constitutional.

How Bills Become Laws

Simply put, a law starts out as a bill. The legislative branch (referred to as Congress, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate) creates and approves bills, then sends them to the president for review. At that point, the president can either sign the bill into law or reject and veto the bill. If vetoed, Congress must achieve a two-thirds majority vote to overrule the president’s decision.

Explaining Executive Orders

An executive order (EO) is unlike a bill in that it does not originate in Congress. It is given from the president directly to the federal government and does not require voting approval from Congress.

When a president issues an executive order, it has the same force of law had it gone through Congress. However, executive orders cannot create new laws or overturn those created by Congress, they can only instruct the government what to do within the confines of the law. In other words, it can dictate how federal departments use and manage resources.

Some executive orders have been radical, addressing issues such as discrimination or national security, while others have expanded on a federal department’s responsibilities or an existing piece of legislation. Presidents have issued executive orders in response to national crises, opposition in Congress, or because they want to take action on issues they deem important.

The president’s power to issue executive orders can be traced back to Article II of the Constitution, where it says the president has “executive power” and “he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Brief History of Executive Orders

Since George Washington took office in 1789, thousands of EOs have been created by presidents to establish policies without Congress.

The most renowned executive order is Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves under the Confederacy in 1863.

During his presidency spanning the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed 3,721 executive orders, the most by a single president. He issued orders to detain Japanese Americans in internment camps, confiscate gold, and to create a Works Progress Administration that would eventually employ millions of Americans.

Limits on Executive Orders

There is no limit to how many executive orders a president can sign, but there are checks on the orders.

The Supreme Court can overturn executive orders if they violate the Constitution or undermine any established laws. In 1952, Harry Truman’s executive order to seize control over US steel mills to avoid a labor strike was deemed unlawful by the courts when they ruled that he exceeded his power and the government had no authority to seize private property.

The Supreme Court can overturn executive orders if they violate the Constitution Click To Tweet

Congress can try to challenge an executive order by amending or rewriting a law, but the president would still be able to veto their attempt, to which they would have to respond with a two-thirds majority vote.

After a president’s term expires, it’s not uncommon for whoever takes office to nullify the executive orders made by their predecessor.

EO Controversy

Executive orders have been used by nearly all presidents. They remain controversial because they allow the commander in chief to sidestep Congress to advance his agenda, deviating from the constitutional separation of powers and normal lawmaking process.

Presidents can use EOs to make decisions and accomplish goals in the best interests of the American people, but their use has often raised questions about the extent and abuse of a president’s authority.

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Kristy DeSmit

Marketing Specialist at LawDepot
Kristy is an avid blogger, Twitter enthusiast, and company legalese interpreter.
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