executive order

executive order, in the United States, official document initiated and signed by the president containing directives concerning how the executive branch shall carry out its responsibilities under the laws and Constitution; similar orders also may be issued by the governors of states. Executive orders express the president's priorities for how best to use the federal government's powers and resources, and often are used to establish a new approach for dealing with politically contentious issues after a change in administrations. Once an executive order is signed by the president, it is numbered and published in the Federal Register, the daily journal of the U.S. government, which makes its directives legally binding on the employees and agencies of the executive branch; prior to the 20th cent. executive orders were not numbered. Executive orders cannot be used to make new laws or allocate new funds, although already available money may be reallocated to fulfill an executive order. They are subject to review by the courts, and Congress can overturn a president's executive order with two-thirds support from the Senate and the House. A sitting president can also issue a new executive order that nullifies one issued by a previous president.

Probably the best-known executive order is President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (1863). Among other notable executive orders are President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1942 order during World War II that authorized the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry and President Dwight Eisenhower's 1957 order that sent federal troops into Little Rock, Ark., to enforce the desegregation of its public schools.

Other types of executive actions include presidential memorandums, which are similar to executive orders and also need to be published in the Federal Register in order to be legally binding. Memorandums, however, are not numbered, and sometimes are not published, in which case they remain guidelines. Presidential proclamations and national security directives are other ways in which presidents may take unilateral action; presidential proclamations, for example, have been used to establish national monuments and to acknowledge the celebration of Thanksgiving Day.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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