Every U.S. president, from George Washington to President Donald Trump, has used executive orders. Trump has signed 22 executive actions – including eight executive orders – in his first three weeks as president, bringing up the question of what an executive order is and how it is used.
In a poll of 77 John Brown University students, 42 said they believed they have a good understanding of executive orders, while 35 said they did not.
Rebekah Oakes, sophomore graphic design student said, “I do not understand [executive orders], because I thought there were supposed to be checks and balances so no one branch can just do things without the accountability of the others.” Oakes said it seems like executive orders contradict that principle.
Daniel Bennett, associate professor of political science at JBU, offered an explanation and his thoughts on executive orders.
“Executive orders are ways for the president to direct the executive branch on matters of law and policy. Most of the time, Congress passes bills that are somewhat vague in terms of details, so it’s up to the executive branch to fill in the blanks in terms of actual policy,” Bennett said.
Executive actions include executive orders, but not every executive action is an executive order, according to National Public Radio. NPR reported that Phillip Cooper, professor of public administration in the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University, said the phrase is broad, explaining that executive actions are “merely a category” of policy tools that presidents use, including executive orders, that has no separate legal meaning itself.
“Executive orders allow the president to implement the law in line with his vision for policy, so long as the order doesn’t contradict existing law or violate the Constitution,” Bennett said.
Bennett also spoke about presidents’ use of executive orders. “The courts have been pretty generous to presidents in their use of executive orders when the orders are simply filling in gaps in policy. It’s when an order violates the law that the courts are going to be skeptical, and more critical of presidential power,” he said.
“If there’s a clear piece of legislation that says, ‘No you can’t do this,’ a president can’t pick up a pen and get around it,” Cooper said.
“Since Congress has become more polarized, it’s made it tougher for there to be consensus on passing major legislation,” Bennett said. “Thus, it’s no coincidence that presidents have turned to executive orders more and more frequently to try to affect policy. I don’t think this is healthy for our system of government in the long run, but for now…presidents are seen to have a wide berth on these things.”
After a president has signed an executive order, it’s sent to the Federal Register, and then, finally, published.