An executive order is an edict issued by a member of the executive branch of a government, usually the head of that branch.
The term is mostly used by the United States Government. In other countries, similar edicts may be known as decrees, or orders-in-council.
U.S. Presidential usage
Presidents of the United States have issued executive orders since 1789. There is no United States Constitution provision or statute that explicitly permits this, aside from the vague grant of “executive power” given in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution and the statement “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” in Article II, Section 3.
Executive orders do not have legal force by themselves. Most are simply orders issued by the President to United States executive officers to help direct their operation, the result of failing to comply being removal from office. Some orders do have the force of law when made in pursuance of certain Acts of Congress due to those acts giving the President discretionary powers.
Other types of executive orders are:
- national security directives,
- homeland security presidential directives, and
- presidential decision directives, both of which deal with national security and defense matters.
History in the United States
Until the early 1900s, executive orders went mostly unannounced and undocumented, seen only by the agencies to which they were directed. Others have simply been lost due to natural decay and poor record keeping. However, the State Department instituted a numbering system for executive orders in the early 1900s, starting retroactively with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. Today, only those executive orders dealing with issues of national security are kept from the public.
Until the 1950s, there were no rules or guidelines outlining what the president could or could not do through an executive order. However, the Supreme Court ruled that an executive order from President Harry S. Truman that placed all steel mills in the country under federal control was invalid because it attempted to make law, rather than clarify or act to further a law put forth by the Congress or the Constitution. Presidents since this decision have generally been careful to cite which specific laws they are acting under when issuing new executive orders.
Critics accuse presidents of abusing executive orders, of using them to make laws without Congressional approval, and of moving existing laws away from their original mandates. Large policy changes with wide-ranging effects have been effected through executive order, including the integration of the Armed Forces under Harry Truman and the desegregation of public schools under Dwight D. Eisenhower.
One extreme example of an executive order is Executive Order 9066, where President Roosevelt delegated military authority to remove all people (used to target specifically Japanese-Americans and German-Americans) in a military zone. The authority delegated to John DeWitt subsequently paved the way for all Japanese-Americans on the West coast to be sent to internment camps for the duration of World War II. 11,000 German-Americans were also sent to internment camps under executive order.
Wars have been fought upon executive order, including Bill Clinton’s 1999 Kosovo War. However, all such wars have had authorizing resolutions from Congress. The extent to which the president may exercise military power independently of Congress and the scope of the War Powers Resolution remain unresolved constitutional issues in the United States.
Critics fear that the president could make himself a de facto dictator by side-stepping the other branches of government and making autocratic laws. The presidents, however, cite executive order as often the only way to clarify laws passed through the Congress, laws which often require vague wording in order to please all political parties involved in their creation.
To date, the courts have overturned only two executive orders: the aforementioned Truman order and a 1996 order issued by President Bill Clinton that attempted to prevent the U.S. government from contracting with organizations that had strikebreakers on the payroll. Likewise, the Congress may also overturn an executive order by passing legislation in conflict with it or by refusing to approve funding to enforce it. Because the president retains the power to veto such a decision, however, the Congress usually needs a two-thirds majority to override a veto and truly end an executive order.