One of the most common “presidential” documents in our modern government is the executive order. Every American president has issued at least one, totaling more than 13,731 since George Washington took office in 1789. Media reports of “changes made by executive order,” or “executive orders to come” rarely explain what the document is. They seem to be “instant laws,” and, at times, steeped in controversy.
What It Is, What It Isn’t
An executive order is a written, signed, and published directive from the president of the United States that manages operations of the federal government. They are numbered consecutively, so executive orders may be referenced by their assigned number or their topic. Other presidential documents are sometimes like executive orders in their format, formality, and issue, but have different purposes.
- Proclamations, which are also signed and numbered consecutively, communicate information on holidays, commemorations, federal observances, and trade.
- Administrative orders – like memos, notices, letters, and messages – are not numbered. But they are still signed and used to manage administrative matters of the federal government.
Executive orders are not legislation; they require no approval from Congress, and Congress cannot simply overturn them. Congress may pass legislation that might make it difficult, or even impossible, to carry out the order, such as removing funding. Only a sitting U.S. president may overturn an existing executive order by issuing another executive order to that effect.
The format, substance, and documentation of executive orders have varied across the history of the U.S. presidency. Today, executive orders follow a format and strict documentation system. The Department of State began numbering executive orders in 1907, and even worked backward to assign numbers to all the orders on file since 1862. In 1936, the Federal Register Act put into place the system that is still in use today. Occasionally, an executive order that predates the numbering system is located, which might result in assigning it a number already in use with a distinguishing letter (e.g., 7709, 7709-A). As a result, there are more total executive orders in existence than the most recent number.
There are formatting differences between executive orders released by the White House press office, those printed in the Federal Register, those printed under Title 3, or those found in digital archives as HTML text. Regardless of source, however, all formats will include basic components that are central to the executive order document:
Heading. Executive orders are generally labeled as such in the heading. The heading also includes a number and a date of issue. Historically, however, these features might appear at the end of an order, rather than the beginning, and the number might be handwritten at the bottom of the last page.
Title. Each executive order has a title, which typically indicates what the order concerns.
Body. The orders in the executive order are grouped into sections and subsections, each numbered or lettered according to a general outline. Sections spell out the orders, action steps to realize the orders, and other directives. The last section in the order is typically administrative in nature, authorizing publication of the order in the Federal Register, or offering a relevant disclaimer.
Signature. Executive orders are signed by the issuing president. Following the signature is a “White House” notation and date that the order was issued. If there was a date in the heading, the dates in the heading and signature typically match. Executive orders that are pulled from the Federal Register will also include a time and date stamp of when the order was published and a billing code.
Locating Executive Orders
Presidential executive orders, both historical and modern, may generally be found online. Often, orders may be located by the issuing president, date, number, or subject. Historical or online archives might offer the text of an order, a PDF of the Federal Register entry about the order, or a PDF of the order from the White House. All three presentation formats contain the elements identified earlier and may serve as valuable primary source texts.