What Is a Presidential Executive Order?

Learning About the Presidency

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Executive orders (EOs) are official documents, numbered consecutively, by which the President of the U.S. manages the operations of the Federal Government.

Since 1789, US presidents ("the executive") have issued directives that are now known as executive orders. These are legally binding directives to federal administrative agencies. Executive orders are generally used to direct federal agencies and officials as their agencies implement a congressionally-established law. However, executive orders may be controversial if the President is acting counter to real or perceived legislative intent.

History of Executive Orders

President George Washington issued the first executive order three months after being sworn into office. Four months later, on October 3 1789, Washington used this power to proclaim the first national day of thanksgiving.

The term "executive order" was initiated by President Lincoln in 1862, and most executive orders were unpublished until the early 1900s when the State Department began numbering them.

Since 1935, presidential proclamations and executive orders "of general applicability and legal effect" must be published in the Federal Register unless doing so would threaten national security.

Executive Order 11030, signed in 1962, established the proper form and process for presidential executive orders. The Director of the Office of Management and Budget is responsible for managing the process.

The executive order is not the only type of presidential directive. Signing statements are another form of a directive, specifically associated with a piece of legislation passed by Congress.

Types of Executive Orders

There are two types of executive order. The most common is a document directing executive branch agencies how to carry out their legislative mission. The other type is a declaration of policy interpretation which intended for a wider, public audience.

The text of executive orders appears in the daily Federal Register as each executive order is signed by the President and received by the Office of the Federal Register. The text of executive orders beginning with Executive Order 7316 of 13 March 1936, also appears in the sequential editions of Title 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

Access and Review

The National Archives maintains an online record of Executive Order Disposition Tables. The tables are compiled by President and maintained by the Office of the Federal Register. The first is President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Codification of Presidential Proclamations and Executive Orders covers the period 13 April 1945, through 20 January 1989 -- a period encompassing the administrations of Harry S. Truman through Ronald Reagan.

Revoking an Executive Order

In 1988, President Reagan banned abortions at a  military hospital except in cases of rape or incest or when the mother's life is threatened. President Clinton rescinded it with another executive order. A Republican Congress then codified this restriction in an appropriations bill. Welcome to the Washington, D.C. merry-go-round.

Because executive orders relate to how one president manages his executive branch team, there is no requirement that subsequent presidents follow them. They may do as Clinton did, and replace an old executive order with a new one or they may simply revoke the prior executive order.

Congress can also revoke a presidential executive order by passing a bill by a veto-proof (2/3 vote) majority. For example, in 2003 Congress unsuccessfully attempted to revoke President Bush's Executive Order 13233, which had rescinded Executive Order 12667 (Reagan). The bill, HR 5073 40, did not pass.

Controversial Executive Orders

Presidents have been accused of using the power of the executive order to make, not merely implement, policy. This is controversial, as it subverts the separation of powers as outlined in the Constitution.

President Lincoln used the power of presidential proclamation to initiate the Civil War. On 25 December 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued the "Christmas Proclamation," which pardoned "all and every person who directly or indirectly participated in the late insurrection or rebellion" related to the Civil War. He did so under his constitutional authority to grant pardons; his action was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court.

President Truman desegregated the armed forces via Executive Order 9981. During the Korean War, on 8 April 1952, Truman issued Executive Order 10340 in order to avert a steel mill workers strike called for the following day. He did so with public regret. The case -- --Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952) -- went all the way to the Supreme Court, which sided with the steel mills. Workers [url link=http://www.democraticcentral.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=1865]immediately went on strike.

  • A half million workers were laid off as companies lacked steel to keep plants running. The number of railroad cars loaded in the week ending July 7, 1952, was the lowest since records had been kept, and many railroads began to suffer financial difficulty. California growers faced a loss of $200 million because there was not enough steel to make cans for their vegetable crops. On July 22, the United States Army shut down its largest shell-making plant due to a lack of steel.

President Eisenhower used Executive Order 10730 to begin the process of desegregating America's public schools.

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Gill, Kathy. "What Is a Presidential Executive Order?" ThoughtCo, Nov. 20, 2020, thoughtco.com/presidential-executive-order-3368096. Gill, Kathy. (2020, November 20). What Is a Presidential Executive Order? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/presidential-executive-order-3368096 Gill, Kathy. "What Is a Presidential Executive Order?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/presidential-executive-order-3368096 (accessed March 31, 2023).

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