Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Tuesday 3 October 2023 Dublin: 10°C
# Explainer
The pen is mightier: How US Presidents lay down the law by executive order
The orders make it clear to federal agencies what the presidents want.

SINCE DONALD TRUMP was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, you’ve probably seen a lot of pictures of him signing papers.

It’s part of Trump’s promise to overturn as much of the Barack Obama’s presidency as possible while implementing his own agenda.

Ignoring the noise that goes with everything Trump does, we’ve been attempting to record the policy decisions he’s been taking in office.

But what exactly are the ‘executive orders’ we’ve heard so much about and what effect do they have?

Obama AP / Press Association Images President Barack Obama signs executive orders to protect LGBT employees from federal workplace discrimination. AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

What is an executive order? 

Executive orders are legally binding directives from the US President that do not require approval from Congress.

Executive orders can not be directed at citizens, they can only be directed at US federal agencies.

This does not mean that a President can tell an agency do anything, however, as the orders must not be deemed to exceed the powers of their office.

But only twice out of the almost 14,000 executive orders signed from George Washington to Barack Obama have they been overruled by the Supreme Court.

The orders are also not supposed to go against what Congress wants either, but to keep within the law and the spirit of what Congress wants.

Congress can also work against an executive order it doesn’t like by restricting funding to its implementation but a President can veto that as well.

So in reality, the most painless way to remove an executive order is through the office of the President. US parties regularly do this after getting their candidate elected.

What are they used for? 

Bill Clinton Marcy Nighswander / PA Images Former President Bill Clinton signs an executive order as part of his deficit-reduction plan in 1993. Marcy Nighswander / PA Images / PA Images

In general the orders force the agencies to act in the manner that fits a President’s priorities.

In the case of the above photograph, for example, the order steered all new taxes collected toward the deficit as to be part of Clinton’s deficit reduction plan.

But the orders can sometimes be very significant. In 1957 President Eisenhower used an executive order to dispatch troops to enforce the desegregation of an all-white school in Arkansas.

President Kennedy used one to end racial discrimination in federal housing while President Clinton used one to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal civilian workforce.

How rare are executive orders?


As the above chart shows, the frequency of executive orders has fluctuated over the past 150 years but there’s rarely a distinct difference between successive Presidents.

Obama and George W. Bush, for example, had almost the same number.

Their use can sometimes be controversial as the President is deliberately avoiding congress. Especially so if their regular use makes an administration seem dictatorial.

It’s no coincidence that wartime President Franklin D. Roosevelt employed executive orders most frequently.

President Trump 

PastedImage-41181 White House White House

So far, Trump has officially signed two executive orders and a number of presidential memoranda.

As the USA today explains, presidential memoranda are “increasingly common but lesser known expression of presidential power that came to replace many executive orders under President Obama.”

In reality the amount to very much the same thing.

The first executive order Trump signed puts in writing that it is the administration’s policy to work towards the “prompt repeal” the Affordable Care Act.

His predecessor’s signature healthcare initiative known as Obamacare.

In the meantime, Trump’s executive order directs health agencies and other departments to reduce their spending under the Affordable Care Act.

Politicians and commentators have, however, expressed some confusion about what exactly the result of the order will be.

Trump signed a second executive order yesterday and a number of other directives that seek to hasten to construction of infrastructure projects, such as oil pipelines, and reduce environmental oversight for them.

CNN / YouTube

Read: An awful lot of Irish people are feeling less positive about the world following Trump’s inauguration >

Explainer: Why would Trump’s White House present blatant lies as ‘alternative facts’? >

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.