Understanding executive orders and the powers they grant

An executive order is any directive issued by the leader of the executive branch. They are usually used to direct certain tasks or actions to Cabinet members and other executive officers. Some executive orders even have the “force of law” when permissions are given by the Senate or House of Representatives.

For example, in 2001, both houses of Congress voted to give President Bush emergency powers after the 9/11 attacks. Bush was able to use this power to make executive orders that would allow him to make important decisions regarding the war on terror without a vote from Congress. However, these emergency powers do expire. Despite this, not all executive orders need an approval from Congress. Presidents have been issuing executive orders since 1789 even though the Constitution does not explicitly give them the right to do so. However, vague wording in Article II Section 1 and Article II Section 2 gives the president this privilege. Executive orders also include National Security directives and Homeland Security Presidential Directives.

The introduction of an executive orders were not always made known to the people. As a mater of fact, they were pretty much kept a secret until the early 1900’s and were only announced to the specific officer or agency that was authorized to act on it. Eventually, the Department of State started a numbering scheme in 1907 starting with one issued by President Abraham Lincoln on October 20, 1862, which was instituted in order to establish military courts in Louisiana after Union forces captured New Orleans. Today, most executive orders are documented and released to the media and general public. However, National Security Directives are still kept from the public so it does not jeopardize national security. Until the 1950’s, there was no boundary or rules set up regarding how far the president can go with an executive order.

The Supreme Court, however, put a stop to this in 1952 when they were faced with the case Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. vs Sawyer. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled Harry Truman’s Executive Order 10340 which put all steel mills in the country under federal government control. The Supreme Court called this executive order invalid because it attempted to make law, which was the job of the legislative branch (Senate and House of Representatives). Since then executive orders pertaining to laws were only allowed to be carried out when they are used to clarify or act to further a law put forth by the Congress or the Constitution. Executive orders have even been used to declare war. This included the 1999 Kosovo War that took place during Bill Clinton’s second term in office. All of these wars have also included authorizing resolutions from Congress. Despite this, the extent of a president’s military power still remains a questionable and unresolved constitutional issue. Presidents have been accused a number of times of abusing executive orders. The most common abuse is when the president uses them to make or change laws without the approval of Congress.

Executive orders have been used in the past to create large policy changes. Two big examples of this are Harry Truman’s integration of the armed forces and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s integration of public schools. However, probably the most extreme executive order to date is Executive Order 9066 in which Franklin Roosevelt gave General John L. DeWitt the authority to transfer Japanese Americans, German Americans, and Italian Americans to internment camps during the Second World War. The biggest fear among critics is that executive orders could allow a president to become a de facto dictator by allowing him to make autocratic laws without the involvement of the other two branches of government. Past presidents have used executive orders to clarify laws passed through Congress. Some of these laws require vague wording in order to satisfy all political parties involved in their creation.

Executive orders can be overturned by either of the other two branches: the Supreme Court can do so through a case that is brought in front of them and Congress can do so by passing legislation that would conflict with the order or by refusing to approve funding to enforce it. The president still has the right to veto a decision from Congress, which Congress can override as always with a two-thirds majority that would end the executive order. However, this is nearly impossible because of the supermajority vote that is required as well as the fact that individual lawmakers can be left very vulnerable to political criticism. To date, two executive orders have been overturned by other branches. This includes the previously mentioned Truman order as well as a 1996 Clinton order that attempted to prevent the US government from contracting with organizations that had strike-breakers on the payroll. Executive orders can also be overturned by future presidents.

This has already been done by Barack Obama in regards to a few of George W. Bush’s orders. One of the most popular executive orders to be overturned by presidents was the Mexico City Policy (also known as the Global Gag Rule), which has become a form of “tug of war” between the Republican Party and Democratic Party regarding abortion. It was first instituted by Ronald Reagan in 1984 and required all non-governmental organizations that receive federal funding to refrain from performing or promoting abortion services as a form of family planning in other countries. The policy remained in tact through the George HW Bush administration until Bill Clinton rescinded it in January 1993, nut was immediately put back into affect by George W. Bush until Obama again ended it in January 2009. For more information regarding executive orders including a list of orders, click here for the Wikipedia entry. For an official list of President Barack Obama’s executive orders and presidential memoranda, click here.



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