Executive Order Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Executive Order, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Executive Order?

n. a President’s or Governor’s declaration which has the force of law, usually based on existing statutory powers, and requiring no action by the Congress or state legislature.

History and Meaning of Executive Order

Executive Orders are declarations issued by the President of the United States or state governors that have the force of law, usually based on the use of existing statutory powers. Contrary to legislative acts that require approval from the legislative branch, Executive Orders bypass Congress or state legislature and consequently, do not require approval by either the Senate or the House of Representatives. Executive Orders have historically been used by sitting Presidents to bypass Congress on contentious issues, and by Governors to direct state agencies.

Executive Orders date back to the beginning of the United States when George Washington issued the first Executive Order in 1789. The initial Declaration was about the creation of the State Department. The use of Executive Orders has expanded over time and is a widely used administrative tool. Since the first Executive Order from President Washington, every President since has issued them, and they continue to be a staple of modern day governance and the administration of the country.

Examples of Executive Order

  1. In 2012, President Obama issued Executive Order 13662, which imposed sanctions on certain individuals engaging in significant transactions with the government of Iran.

  2. In 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order 13769, which aimed at temporarily suspending immigration from seven countries.

  3. President Biden signed several Executive Orders in his first days in office in January 2021. One of these was Executive Order 13985, which reversed a Trump-era ban on transgender individuals serving in the military.

Legal Terms Similar to Executive Order

  1. Memorandum - A means of communicating a formal statement or instruction to a person or a group of people, which has no binding legal effect.

  2. Presidential Determination - A means of communication between the President and Congress, used to make foreign policy decisions or determine eligibility for certain foreign aid programs.

  3. Proclamation - A communication from the President that directs attention to a particular issue or event. Proclamations may or may not have a legal effect but tend to be ceremonial or symbolic in nature.