Executive Orders: Just How Much Power Do They Wield?

Since Donald Trump assumed the presidency, the words “executive order” have become ubiquitous in our national political dialogue regarding the Trump administration’s actions on policy decisions. Find out just what these orders mean—and how much they’ll impact our most marginalized communities.

Since Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20, the words “executive order” keep popping up regarding the nascent administration’s actions on their implementation of policy decisions. Take a look at this alarming list of every executive order Trump has signed so far (10 in five days!)—and others he intends to sign in the near future, which, in part, entail an immigration order he pushed through on Wednesday to begin construction of his notorious “wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border, plus add more border patrol forces and immigration enforcement officers to oversee deportations. Some of his orders already signed into law include reinstated construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines, withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and renewing the backward Mexico City policy “gag order” on international abortion funding. By taking these actions, Trump is harnessing his “executive power,” granted to U.S. presidents under Article II of the Constitution.

Every president — from George Washington to Barack Obama — has used this power to some extent. In fact, more than 13,500 executive orders have been issued since 1789. Often, this tactic serves as an inroad to bypass Congress, who lack any approval power of such an order. With one stroke of a pen, the president can advance these actions, which take effect immediately. By design, actual legislation must be scrutinized through a rigorous approval process, ensuring that a separate branch of government fully weighs and considers bills before they pass into law.

The legislative body has no authority to overturn executive orders. Congress can create a law to bypass funding allocated to a program; however, as Trump creates various orders to cut funding from programs many Democrats support, finding ways to work around or nullify them proves nearly impossible for lawmakers in opposition. Trump also retains the power to reverse any previously instated order from past presidencies. Throughout his campaign, Trump promised to utilize this type of repeal action to dismantle the President Obama-signed order backing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.

Yet, the judiciary branch does hold authority to overturn orders signed by the president. On the other hand, this happened only twice in our nation’s history.

One of the times the judicial branch retracted an executive order was in 1952, when President Truman created one to prevent strikes during the Korean War by placing all U.S. steel mills under federal law. The Supreme Court decided to overturn the order based on the premise that it attempted to make law, rather than clarify or further an existing law ratified by Congress or the Constitution.

The second time the judiciary overturned an executive order was in 1995 under former President Clinton. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected Clinton’s attempt to prevent the federal government from entering into controls with organizations that hire replacements for striking workers. The presiding judges stated that the order was regulatory in nature, and the National Labor Relations Act preempted that determination by guaranteeing employers the right to hire replacements in the event of a strike.

The coming consequences of Trump’s early executive orders threaten the livelihoods of many members of our most vulnerable communities. But this should come as no surprise: During his campaign, Trump vowed that in first 100 days in office, he would retract access to information and resources for immigrants, women’s health, Native Americans and environmental scientists—and he’s fulfilling those dangerous promises in speed. The dire repercussions of these orders will reverberate across the nation for years to come if the judiciary branch fails to step up and reverse them. 

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