Trump’s Executive Orders, Explained

This article was written by Evan Spiegel for WIUX News.

Since Donald Trump was sworn in as president almost two weeks ago, he has signed what appears to some to be a flurry of executive orders, from building a border wall with Mexico to repealing the Affordable Care Act to banning refugees and more. These orders have caused controversy, not only due to their partisan nature, but also because the president is not waiting for Congress to give their stamp of approval to these hot-button issues. This early activity from the White House has raised a couple of questions:

What is an executive order?

An executive order is an official statement from the president that tells federal agencies how they should use (or not use) their resources. It is not the creation or passing of a new law, since only Congress can do that, so it is not unilateral legislation on the part of the president. It merely instructs federal agencies (such as the Department of Homeland Security or EPA) to use funds a certain way and to work within the confines of existing law. However, executive orders are still recorded in the Federal Register, are considered binding and are subject to legal review.

They are the most formal type of executive action, which can also refer to presidential memorandums (which are just below executive orders and basically state an administration’s position on a certain policy), proclamations, and directives. Executive orders have been used since George Washington; some examples include former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), the Emancipation Proclamation, the establishment of the Peace Corps by John F. Kennedy and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by Jimmy Carter.

Have presidents been using an increasing amount of Executive Orders?

In a word, no. At least not by the numbers (see chart below). It is, of course, important to look at not only the number of executive orders but also what they do. Obama has been criticized by many on the right for what they see as his overexpansion of executive power (he signed 275 total during his tenure as President), but he actually signed fewer than former Presidents George W. Bush (291), Ronald Reagan (381) and Richard Nixon (346), and fewer than Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt by a large margin (1,081 and 3,522, respectively). President Trump has been signing executive orders at a seemingly rapid pace, signing twenty in his first ten days, but Obama did something similar when he first entered office back in 2009, signing nine in his first 10 days, and 16 total in January and February.

What are the pros and cons?

The obvious advantage to using executive orders is that you don’t need to wait for a bill to pass through the houses of Congress to take action on an issue. This has become ever more convenient for presidents presiding over an increasingly partisan and often obstructive government.

The downside is that the more you do it, the more the other side is able to paint you as an authoritarian despot, handing down judgments like Zeus with his lightning bolts, ignoring the will of the people and the Constitution itself.

It’s important to remember, though, that executive orders do not create or pass new laws. They only tell federal agencies what to do with their resources in ways that adhere to laws that are currently in place.

This is not to say that executive orders should be immune from scrutiny and criticism; presidents would typically rather have Congress’s approval so they don’t look like dictators. However, as mentioned earlier, these orders are not written in stone and are subject to legal review. If the Supreme Court decides that an order is unconstitutional, it’s out.

It’s only President Trump, not King Trump, after all.

Trump EO Chart

You can look at all of Trump’s executive actions so far here: http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/01/all-trump-executive-actions-000288