What Are Executive Orders? What Are Their Limits? - Law and Daily Life
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What Are Executive Orders? What Are Their Limits?

An executive order is one way a U.S. president can make changes to the nation's policies. But there are limits as to how far such orders can go.

In President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, he presented several policy goals which he said he hoped to accomplish by executive order. As The New York Times reports, using an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour may be the only way to circumvent Republican opposition in Congress.

As history has shown, executive orders can be used in many different ways. Here's a quick summary of what you need to know:

A Way for Presidents to Set Policy

For most national policy changes to occur, a bill must be approved by Congress and then signed into law by the president. An executive order is a way of sidestepping the legislative process to accomplish limited policy objectives.

Legal support for these orders comes from both the Constitution and acts (or the inaction) of Congress. Many executive orders base their authority in the U.S. Constitution's broad grant of executive power to the president.

The president can also make executive orders relating to organizations under the executive branch, like the Food and Drug Administration or the National Security Administration. Executive orders have also historically been used in times of war or military conflict, like President Franklin Roosevelt's order that led to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Some critics have taken issue with the Obama administration's use of executive orders. In the last year, President Obama has issued executive orders relating to issues like fighting HIV and forming a council on Native American affairs.

Limits on Executive Orders

Executive orders are not unchecked strokes of power from the president's pen; they can be challenged and deemed unlawful by federal courts. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court determined during the Korean War that executive orders must fit within a certain sphere of power and cannot simply defy Congressional intent.

Although this area of law remains in flux, executive orders have the most legitimacy when the president is acting with the implied or express authority of Congress. However, these executive orders may still legally shape policy if the laws or Congress have been silent on an issue.

Because Congress is rarely silent on major issues, executive orders are most common in areas where the president has been granted discretion by Congress. Regardless of the president's relationship with the federal legislature, executive orders will only allow a very small policy window in which to make changes.

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