Executive Orders 101

What is an Executive Order? What does it mean? How does it affect the law? These questions and more were addressed Monday, April 24, in this year's Davis Family Foundation Lecture on the U.S. Constitution. Dr. Jim Riddlesperger, Professor of Political Science at TCU, presented "Executive Orders 101" to Upper School students during announcements period.
 
For Dr. Riddlesperger, fundamental knowledge on the checks and balances that the three branches of government have is very important. He cited that only 36 percent of the population can name the three branches of government (Legislative, Executive and Judicial if you are checking to see if you are in that 36 percent!).
 
“Not surprisingly, no major legislation has been passed by the Trump administration so far, because it is so difficult during these polarizing times,” Dr. Riddlesperger said. “Instead, he has turned to executive orders.”
 
Executive orders are directives issued by the President to those offices that serve the Executive Branch. They can have much of the same power as a federal law. The President, in his oath of office, swears that he will “faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Dr. Riddlesperger said that the Founding Fathers made the constitution intentionally vague and that we, as people, entrust executive power to the President when he is inaugurated.
 
“The constitution indicates that the President should ‘take care’ that laws are being faithfully executed,” he said. “He must use his judgement as a responsible President.”
 
There are 13,765 executive orders listed in the Federal Register. The first was issued by President George Washington, and, in total, he issued just eight. President Franklin Roosevelt issued the most with 3,522. “Many are boring and mundane,” Riddlesperger noted. “President Jimmy Carter issued three about the same person.
 
“Many of the executive orders are simple administrative directives,” he continued. “Some are incredibly important and can set the direction of a presidency.”
 
It is important to note that executive orders only live as long as a President is in office. It is not uncommon for new presidents to overturn old executive orders. 
 
Dr. Riddlesperger shared with students what he feels are some of the more profound executive orders:
 
No. 9,981 from President Truman on July 26, 1948, desegregated the military. Civil rights leaders were asking to secure their rights as promised by the Declaration of Independence. Because the Commander in Chief organizes the military, he did not need congressional action to desegregate.  
 
No. 11,246 from Lyndon B. Johnson on September 24, 1965, introduced the concept of Affirmative Action. In this executive order the President told all government contracting agencies that they must have affirmative action hiring and promotion policies in place to gain a government contract. “In this order, the President was telling other companies what to do,” Dr. Riddlesperger said. “This was very controversial at the time, and companies were upset that the President was expanding his authority into the private sector.”
 
The presentation also highlighted the number of executive orders from our last three presidents: Clinton 308, Bush 291, and 276 for Obama. The average is about 325. With that being said, “Not all executive orders are executive orders,” Dr. Riddlesperger said, “and they are not all entered in the Federal Register. Those that are registered are reviewable by congress and the courts and can be overturned.”
 
At publication date, Trump hadsigned 25 executive orders, 17 memos of understanding and 20 proclamations, Dr. Riddlesperger shared.
 
Dr. Riddlesperger ended his presentation with a quote from Ken Mayer, a fellow political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power. Mayer was recently quoted as saying, “This is a president who likes the idea of using the power of the office to drive stakes in the ground on his agenda. But he is discovering, as presidents before him have discovered, that checks and balances are a very real thing.”
 
“What I do know is that we must do a better job talking across party lines,” he noted. “Right now, there is a failure on the part of both [Democrats and Republicans] to govern together.”
 
About Dr. Jim Riddlesperger
A Professor of Political Science at Texas Christian University since 1982, Dr. Riddlesperger has taught American Politics, with interests in Congress, the presidency and Texas politics. A TCU Honors Professor of the year, he has published 35 research articles; two dozen entries in encyclopedias; and is co-author of The Austin-Boston Connection: Five Decades of House Democratic Leadership, 1937-1989, Texas PoliticsPresidential Leadership and Civil Rights Policy (winner of the Aaron Wildavsky Book Award), and Preparing for the United States Government and Politics AP Exam.
 
A frequent consultant to the news media concerning politics and elections, he has served in a number of administrative roles at TCU, most notably nine years as Department Chair. He is a Past President of the Southwestern Political Science Association.
 
About the Davis Family Foundation Lecture Series
The William S. Davis Family Foundation made a generous gift to FWCD in 2013 to establish the William S. Davis Family Foundation Lecture Series on the U.S. Constitution. Davis’s vision was to bring renowned speakers to the School each year to talk about civic participation, leadership, constitutional issues, the Bill of Rights and more.
 
The inaugural lecture took place on April 2, 2013, and featured Janine Turner, co-founder of the nonprofit organization Constituting America.
 
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