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Executive orders have often been viewed as the means presidents have of accomplishing on their own what Congress refuses to give them. Presidents who are dealing with congresses dominated by the opposing party routinely find it necessary to resort to this method of getting things done and of accomplishing their political aims.

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One of the major strengths of the United States Constitution is that it sets up a system of checks and balances and clearly articulates the separation of powers that the founding fathers envisioned through the establishment of relatively autonomous legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government. Presidents who do not use executive powers judiciously may well overstep—and in notable cases have overstepped—the limits placed upon them by the Constitution.

A number of political scientists regard the wholesale use of executive orders as a weakness, a failure on the part of a chief executive to use persuasive skills to influence Congress. Presidents have often used executive orders because they had no alternative.

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With the Stroke of a Pen Summary

Notable among the use of such orders were those relating to the integration of the South and to the implementation of affirmative action. Presidents from Harry S. Truman to Lyndon Johnson worked to bring about a new society in which racial discrimination would not be countenanced officially. Export citation Request permission.

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Please enter a valid email address Email already added. Executive orders are, loosely speaking, presidential directives that require or authorize some action within the executive branch though they often extend far beyond the government.

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They are presidential edicts, legal instruments that create or modify laws, procedures, and policy by fiat. Working from their position as chief executive and commander in chief, presidents have used executive orders to make momentous policy choices, creating and abolishing executive branch agencies, reorganizing administrative and regulatory processes, determining how legislation is implemented, and taking whatever action is permitted within the boundaries of their constitutional or statutory authority.

Even within the confines of their executive powers, presidents have been able to "legislate" in the sense of making policy that goes well beyond simple administrative activity.


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  • Yale Law School professor E. Donald Elliot has argued that many of the thousands of executive orders "plainly 'make law' in every sense," 7 and Louis Fisher finds that despite the fact that the Constitution unambiguously vests the legislative function in Congress, "the President's lawmaking role is substantial, persistent, and in many cases disturbing.

    A short review confirms that executive orders can have profound consequences. In President Franklin Roosevelt used an executive order to establish the Executive Office of the President EOP , the touchstone of modern presidential leadership; 9 Clinton Rossiter concludes that this step may have "saved the Presidency from paralysis and the Constitution from radical amendment.

    Presidents have resorted to executive orders to implement many of the nation's most dramatic civil rights policies. Eisenhower's calling the Arkansas National Guard into active military service in Little Rock, Arkansas, in order to enforce a court order to integrate Central High School.

    Within the civil rights community the executive order became a powerful symbol of presidential commitment to racial equality. Shortly after John F. Kennedy's inauguration, Martin Luther King, Jr. Through executive orders, presidents have almost single-handedly created the federal government's classification system for national security information, as well as the personnel clearance process that determines whether individuals will have access to that information.

    Though purely administrative in nature, these rules and procedures have produced dramatic violations of individual rights and civil liberties, and they have given the president decisive advantages in disputes with Congress over the course of American foreign policy. Nixon's White House tapes, traced the origins of Watergate to Nixon's obsession with the leak of the Pentagon Papers, the infamous top-secret study of America's involvement in Vietnam. President Truman seized the nation's steel mills in with Executive Order , 19 a consequential step in itself that became more important when it resulted in the twentieth century's most important judicial statement on the limits of presidential power, in Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co.