Executive Orders

What Are Executive Orders?

Sometimes on the news we hear about policies made through executive orders. But what are executive orders and how do they work? An executive order is a directive handed down from a president or state governor without involvement from the legislative or judicial branches.  Executive orders can only be given to federal or state agencies like the Department of Homeland Security or the State Department.
Even though executive orders are not mentioned in the constitution, they have been used by every President since George Washington—and more often in times of war or during national disasters when government policy needs to work more quickly than the traditional legislative process. Sometimes the Supreme Court has stepped in to rein back Presidential powers, like when Harry Truman tried to use executive orders to have the government seize America’s steel plants in the 50s.
Presidents have increasingly used executive orders to make policy that circumvents Congressional control. In recent years, George W. Bush used executive orders to approve more aggressive surveillance after 9/11, and President Obama has used them for several things, including immigration reform.

While executive orders can be an essential tool for Presidents, some fear that their increased use threatens the long-standing checks and balances set up in the Constitution. In that system, Congress makes the laws, the Courts interpret the law, and the President and the executive branch enforces the law.

So the next time you hear a president is issuing an executive order it really means one person is making a decision for 322 million Americans, without input from Congress, state legislatures or Courts, and it can be just as easily changed by the next president with the stroke of a pen and no input from anyone else.

Map showing Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, the seven countries affected by section 3 of the executive order.

Executive Order 13769
Protecting the Nation from Foreign
Terrorist Entry into the United States
Donald Trump signing the order in front of a large replica of a USAF Medal of Honor, with Mike Pence and James Mattis at his side

U.S. President Donald Trump signing the order at the Pentagon, with Vice President Mike Pence (left) and Secretary of Defense James Mattis (right) at his side.
Executive order
Date signed January 27, 2017
Signed by U.S. President Donald Trump
Date effective January 27, 2017
Administered by
Related legislation
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965
  • Suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days (conditionally expires May 27, 2017)
  • Restricts entry from seven countries for 90 days (expires April 27, 2017 – excludes green card holders and dual citizens)
  • Orders list of countries for entry restrictions after 90 days
  • Suspends admission of Syrian refugees indefinitely
  • Prioritizes refugee claims by individuals from minority religions on the basis of religious-based persecution
  • Expedites a biometric tracking system
  • Director of National Intelligence and Attorney General positions are yet to be confirmed by the Senate, February 7, 2017

 Brief History of our country’s “executive orders” as issued by our Presidents:


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