Donald Trump has wasted no time wielding his presidential pen during his first few days in office as he tries to “make America great again”.
He made a variety of lofty promises – including a Mexican border wall – during his campaign and packed several more into his 17-minute inaugural speech.
Sitting behind his commander-in-chief desk in the Oval Office (which has been given a gilded makeover), the President has signed several high-level directives to push ahead with his divisive policy agenda.
These include withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), banning US non-governmental organisations that receive federal funding from providing abortions abroad, a hiring freeze across the federal government and reviving the construction of two oil pipelines.
President Trump cited the first three as “executive orders” on his Facebook page.
Actually, they were technically presidential memoranda.
He did issue an executive order to start rolling back the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, but his first executive action, declaring a one-off national day of patriotism, was a presidential proclamation.
Confused? You’re not the only one. Read on and all will become a little clearer.
:: What is an executive order?
A legally binding directive issued by the president to government officials and agencies which cannot be overturned by Congress.
They allow a president to make major decisions, even law, without congressional approval – which is controversial and strange given that America was born from an opposition to tyrannical monarchy.
However, executive orders are subject to judicial review – though the US Supreme Court has only ever upheld two legal challenges.
While granted to a US president as an “executive power” under Article II of the Constitution, there is no specific provision that permits the use of such orders, which makes them open to be tested in the courts.
They are also limited in scope and not as broad as a piece of legislation.
:: Can Congress stop an executive order?
In theory, yes. In practice, probably not.
Congress can attempt to stop an order from coming into effect by restricting funding, but this can be vetoed by the president.
Congress does have the power to override the veto, but it needs to have a 2/3 majority vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives.
Aside from being thrown out in a court of law, the only other concrete means to get rid of an executive order is for a president to reverse orders made by previous commanders-in-chief.
:: What is a presidential memorandum?
Executive memoranda are similar to executive orders in that they carry legal weight and often have consequences just as far reaching.
However, while an order must cite the authority the president has to issue it, memoranda have no such requirement.
Unlike executive orders, they do not need to be numbered and published in the Federal Register.
Memoranda are “executive orders by another name, and yet unique”, according to Phillip Cooper, author of the book By Order of the President: The Use and Abuse of Executive Direct Action.
The truth is, the differences are subtle and easily mixed up. One executive action is often referred to as the other.
:: What is a presidential proclamation?
These are more ceremonial and can be used to make statements of policy, grant presidential pardons, commemorate or celebrate an occasion or group, call attention to events.
President Trump’s first official proclamation was when he declared 20 January 2017 – the day of his inauguration – a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion”.
The White House only released its details on Monday, so it was over before most people found out about it.
:: Which presidents have issued an executive order?
Every president, from George Washington to Barack Obama – except William Henry Harrison – has used them. More than 13,000 have been issued to date.
:: Which president has issued the most executive orders?
Franklin D Roosevelt holds the record at 3,721.
:: Which two executive orders have been overturned by the judiciary?
The first was issued by President Harry S Truman in 1952 when he ordered the government to take control of steel mills to continue production during a workers’ strike during the Korean War.
The second was issued by Bill Clinton in 1995 which prevented the government from contracting with companies that hire replacements for striking workers.
Both orders were deemed to have overstepped the bounds of presidential authority.
:: Examples of the more famous and contentious executive orders?
The most famous is The Emancipation Proclamation, dated 1 January 1863, issued by Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War in which he declared free all slaves in rebellion southern states.
President Ronald Reagan banned the use of federal funds for advocating abortion in 1984. President Bill Clinton reversed it when he took office in 1993. It was reinstated by George W Bush in 2001 and cancelled again by President Barack Obama in 2009. President Trump reinstated the ban again this week.
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