What is an Executive Order, Anyway?

Tension is building after President Obama’s announcement this afternoon of the steps he is taking to reform immigration law. He will announce his plan tomorrow night at 8 pm.

Since President Obama announced his plan to issue an executive order that would grant certain exemptions and changes to immigration law, the media has gone into a frenzy of speculation. Congress has drawn battle lines in anticipation of the executive order.

We will have to wait until tomorrow’s announcement to know for sure what executive order #13680 will entail. In the mean time, let’s take a closer look at how executive orders work.

Believe it or not, there have been nearly fourteen-thousand executive orders since George Washington issued the first. Every president since Washington (excluding 9th president, William Henry Harrison) has issued executive orders, with FDR leading in number with over 3,500 executive orders issued during his presidency.

How exactly does an executive order work?

Executive orders are issued by the president and have the power of federal law. Once issued, state and federal entities are bound by these orders in the same way they would be if the measures therein were voted through congress.

Once the order has been issued, there are only 3 ways to override it:

  • 1. It is declared to be unconstitutional by the supreme court.
  • The Supreme Court has the ability to overturn executive orders if the Justices deem the actions in it violate the constitution or its amendments. FDR had 5 overturned, while Truman and Clinton had one overturned each.

  • 2. Congress passes a bill in contest with the order.
  • Congress may attempt to draft and pass a bill that directly counteracts the Executive Order. Of course, the president still has the executive power of veto, meaning if congress were to successfully pass a bill and was vetoed, it must return to congress and pass again with a 2/3 majority vote. If the bill successfully passes, then the executive action will be overturned.

    This form of bypass is considered by many to be nearly impossible, especially with the current congress, due simply to the fact of such a staggering majority required to see it through.

  • 3. A succeeding president overturns it.
  • A future president may pass an executive order to overturn an existing order. One of president Obama’s first actions in office was to overturn an order issued by his predecessor, George W. Bush, which limited public viewability of executive orders.

By bypassing traditional congressional structure, the President gains expediency of measures, but loses long-term assurances that the order will stand. As far as Obama’s upcoming executive order is concerned, we will have to wait and see how it is received and implemented–or if it will be the first order overridden by the 45th President.

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