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President Bill Clinton's Executive Orders

Instructor: Mary Ruth Sanders Bracy

Mary Ruth teaches college history and has a PhD.

In this lesson, we will examine some of President Bill Clinton's most important executive orders. Executive orders allow a president to act without the help of Congress, and President Clinton issued 364 of them during his presidency.

What is an Executive Order?

When you think about how something becomes law, you probably think about the familiar process: the law originates in Congress, and is signed by the president. But what happens when Congress does not act? Can the president do something on his or her own to change laws or policies?

The answer is yes. Presidents can use executive orders to make changes without the consent of Congress. Executive orders are essentially directives from the president. They have the force of law, and are usually directed at federal agencies and organizations.

Executive orders have been around since the beginning of the United States (President George Washington used one to declare that Thanksgiving would be a national holiday!). Since 1936, executive orders have been numbered, so they are known as Executive Order 13, Executive Order 500, etc.

President Bill Clinton issues 364 executive orders
President Bill Clinton

During the 1990s, President Bill Clinton issued 364 executive orders dealing with issues ranging from the environment to immigration. Let's look more closely at some of President Clinton's executive orders.

Executive Orders and Advising the President

Executive Order 12835 was the second executive order that President Clinton issued, and it established the National Economic Council, a group consisting of the president, cabinet officials, and other advisers to determine and promote domestic and international economic policy. The National Economic Council also advises the president on economic issues.

This executive order is an example of one way the president can shape laws and procedures without involving Congress. The National Economic Council is not part of Congress, but it can influence policies through its relationship with the White House.

Executive Order 12835 is also an example of an important part of executive orders: they can be changed by later presidents. In 2009, President Barack Obama issued another executive order (number 13499) that added more advisers to the National Economic Council.

During his time in office, President Clinton also used executive orders to establish advisory commissions on HIV/AIDS, Arms Proliferation Policy, and the Y2K Computer Crisis.

Executive Orders and the Environment

One of President Clinton's biggest focuses while he was in office was the environment. During his two terms as president, he signed the Food Quality Protection Act, which limited the use of pesticides in food grown in the United States, and enabled the Environmental Protection Agency to implement broad rules governing clean air and water.

President Clinton also urged the federal government itself to become more environmentally friendly through a series of executive orders. Some of the most notable of these were:

  • Executive Order 12843, which required federal agencies to comply with the Clean Air Act when procuring supplies that might hurt the environment, specifically the ozone layer.
  • Executive Order 12844, which offered incentives to federal agencies to purchase alternative fuel vehicles.
  • Executive Order 12845, which encouraged the federal government to purchase energy efficient computer equipment.

Clinton issued all of these executive orders believing that the federal government had a responsibility to set an example for the rest of the country in terms of environmental policy.

Executive Orders and Foreign Policy

Sometimes, President Clinton issued executive orders to address a foreign policy issue. Frequently this was done through the use of sanctions, or banning imports and exports from certain countries.

This was the case with Executive Order 12918, which prohibited any U.S. company or official from selling arms or military equipment to Rwanda. At the time, Rwanda was in the middle of a massive crisis that would quickly devolve into a civil war.

Along the same lines Executive Order 12917 banned most imports and exports from Haiti after a military coup there. These were only two of many executive orders that President Clinton signed that had to do with foreign policy issues. Some others were:

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