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Presidential Executive Order: Definition & Example

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  • 0:07 Presidential Power
  • 1:24 Enforcing Existing Laws
  • 1:51 Checks and Balances
  • 3:08 Other Types of…
  • 4:12 Federal Register
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Presidential Executive orders are rules issued by the president to an executive branch of government. These orders are law. This lesson explains what Executive orders are and how they are used.

Presidential Power

The United States Constitution provides the United States President with the power to make laws. This power comes from Article II. Presidential laws have been used by every president and are known as Executive orders.

The power of Executive order allows the president to create laws and decide how existing laws should be administered. Many Executive orders are issued to give guidance to federal agencies of government.

Neither Congress nor the citizens vote to approve Executive orders. The orders are official and enforceable as soon as the president signs. In the words of Paul Begala, former advisor to President Clinton, 'Stroke of the pen. Law of the land. Kinda cool.'

An Executive order can be used for any matter involving domestic affairs, as long as the order doesn't encroach on a matter reserved to Congress. For instance, an Executive order can't attempt to regulate interstate commerce.

Many famous laws were issued through Executive order. For example, many people may not realize that President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was an Executive order.

Enforcing Existing Laws

An Executive order may make a new law or simply seek to enforce an existing law. Sometimes, Congress or states are hesitant to enforce a controversial federal law. The president can then step in to enforce the law through Executive order.

For example, in 1957, President Eisenhower issued an Executive order that sent federal troops to maintain peace during the desegregation of an Arkansas high school.

Checks and Balances

The use of Executive orders is sometimes considered to be controversial. This is because they allow the president to make law without the consent of Congress. But the power of Executive order isn't absolute. The other two branches of the federal government check and balance this presidential power.

Congress can overturn an Executive order by a two-thirds vote, just as they can overturn a presidential veto. Also, if Congress disagrees with the way the president chooses to implement a law, Congress can amend the law.

The United States Supreme Court also checks the power of Executive order. The Court can declare an Executive order unenforceable if it decides the order is unconstitutional. This happened to President Truman when he attempted to seize control of private steel mills in an effort to settle labor disputes. The Supreme Court ruled that the seizure was unconstitutional and exceeded President Truman's presidential powers.

Additionally, a subsequent president may overturn an Executive order. President Reagan used an Executive order to ban the use of federal funds for abortion support, but President Clinton famously reversed that order.

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