Executive Orders Definition and Application

'The Executive Power shall be vested in...'

President Trump signing his first executive order
President Trump Signs His First Official Order. White House Pool / Getty Images

A presidential executive order (EO) is a directive issued to federal agencies, department heads, or other federal employees by the President of the United States under his statutory or constitutional powers.

In many ways, presidential executive orders are similar to written orders, or instructions issued by the president of a corporation to its department heads or directors.

Thirty days after being published in the Federal Register, executive orders take effect. While they do bypass the U.S. Congress and the standard legislative law-making process, no part of an executive order may direct the agencies to conduct illegal or unconstitutional activities.

Brief History of Executive Orders

The first recognized executive order was issued by President George Washington on June 8, 1789, in the form of a letter to the heads of all federal departments instructing them to “impress me with a full, precise, and distinct general idea of the affairs of the United States.” Since then, all U.S. presidents, with the exception of William Henry Harrison have issued executive orders, ranging from presidents Adams, Madison, and Monroe, who issued only one each, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who issued 3,522 executive orders.

The practice of numbering and officially documenting executive orders as such did not begin until 1907 when the Department of State instituted the present-day numbering system. Applying the system retroactively, the agency designated the “Executive Order Establishing a Provisional Court in Louisiana,” issued by President Abraham Lincoln on October 20, 1862, as “United States Executive Order 1.”

Perhaps the most impactful and certainly most famous executive order was the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, directing all agencies of the federal government to treat the 3.5 million enslaved African Americans being held in the seceded Confederate states as free men and women. 

Reasons for Issuing Executive Orders

Presidents typically issue executive orders for one of these purposes:
1. Operational management of the executive branch
2. Operational management of federal agencies or officials
3. To carry out statutory or constitutional presidential responsibilities

Notable Executive Orders

During his first 100 days in office, 45th President Donald Trump issued more executive orders than any other recent president. Many of President Trump’s early executive orders were intended to fulfill his campaign promises by undoing several policies of his predecessor President Obama. Among the most significant and controversial of these executive orders were:

  • Executive Order Minimizing the Economic Burden of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care ActEO No. 13765 Signed: Jan. 20, 2017: The order reversed provisions of the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — which he had promised to “repeal and replace” during the campaign.
  • Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United StatesEO No. 13768 Signed Jan. 25, 2017: The order, intended to reduce illegal immigration, denied federal grant money to so-called sanctuary cities.
  • Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United StatesEO No. 13769 signed Jan. 27, 2017: The order temporarily suspended immigration from the Muslim-majority countries of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia

Can Executive Orders be Overridden or Withdrawn?

The president can amend or retract his or her own executive order at any time. The president may also issue an executive order superseding or nullifying executive orders issued by former presidents. New incoming presidents may choose to retain the executive orders issued by their predecessors, replace them with new ones of their own, or revoke the old ones completely. In extreme cases, Congress may pass a law that alters an executive order, and they can be declared unconstitutional and vacated by the Supreme Court.

Executive Orders vs. Proclamations

Presidential proclamations differ from executive orders in that they are either ceremonial in nature or deal with issues of trade and may or may not carry legal effect. Executive orders have the legal effect of a law.

Constitutional Authority for Executive Orders

Article II, section 1 of the U.S. Constitution reads, in part, "The executive power shall be vested in a president of the United States of America." And, Article II, section 3 asserts that "The President shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed..." Since the Constitution does not specifically define executive power, critics of executive orders argue that these two passages do not imply constitutional authority. But, presidents of the United States since George Washington have argued that they do and have used them accordingly.

Modern Use of Executive Orders

Until World War I, executive orders were used for relatively minor, usually unnoticed acts of state. That trend changed drastically with the passage of the War Powers Act of 1917. This act passed during WWI granted the president temporary powers to immediately enact laws regulating trade, economy, and other aspects of policy as they pertained to enemies of America. A key section of the War Powers act also contained language specifically excluding American citizens from its effects.

The War Powers Act remained in effect and unchanged until 1933 when a freshly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt found America in the panic stage of the Great Depression. The first thing FDR did was to convene a special session of Congress where he introduced a bill amending the War Powers Act to remove the clause excluding American citizens from being bound by its effects. This would allow the president to declare "national emergencies" and unilaterally enact laws to deal with them. This massive amendment was approved by both houses of Congress in less than 40 minutes without debate. Hours later, FDR officially declared the depression a "national emergency" and started issuing a string of executive orders that effectively created and implemented his famed "New Deal" policy.

While some of FDR's actions were, perhaps, constitutionally questionable, history now acknowledges them as having helped to avert the people's growing panic and starting our economy on its way to recovery.

Presidential Directives and Memorandums Same as Executive Orders

Occasionally, presidents issue orders to executive branch agencies through "presidential directives" or "presidential memorandums," instead of executive orders. In January 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement declaring presidential directives (memorandums) to have exactly the same effect as executive orders.

"A presidential directive has the same substantive legal effect as an executive order. It is the substance of the presidential action that is determinative, not the form of the document conveying that action," wrote acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General Randolph D. Moss. "Both an executive order and a presidential directive remain effective upon a change in administration unless otherwise specified in the document, and both continue to be effective until subsequent presidential action is taken."

How Many Executive Orders Have Presidents Issued?

Since George Washington issued the first one in 1789, all presidents except William Henry Harrison of the Whig Party have issued at least one executive order. In serving longer than any other president, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the most executive orders— 3,728—most dealing with World War II and the Great Depression. Presidents John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe issued only executive order each.

Numbers of executive orders issued by more recent presidents include:

  • George H. W. Bush—166
  • Bill Clinton—364
  • George W. Bush—291
  • Barack Obama—276
  • Donald Trump—220
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Longley, Robert. "Executive Orders Definition and Application." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/presidential-executive-orders-3322125. Longley, Robert. (2023, April 5). Executive Orders Definition and Application. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/presidential-executive-orders-3322125 Longley, Robert. "Executive Orders Definition and Application." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/presidential-executive-orders-3322125 (accessed June 4, 2023).