Analysis: What is an executive order?

Megan Shafar, Guest Writer

*CORRECTION: The Guardian corrected a factual error about Andrew Jackson’s executive orders. He had more executive orders than his predecessors, but not combined.

As of Feb. 24, President Biden has issued 34 executive orders that will impact people across the country and the world. They apply to a variety of topics, including civil rights, immigration, the environment, and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

An executive order is not a law, but it is treated like one. Issued only by the president, who is the head of the executive branch, executive orders do not need approval from Congress.

“It has the enforcement of law,” Stephanie Kezios, a law and history teacher at Elk Grove High School, said over Zoom. “When a president signs an executive order, it essentially allows (them) to bypass the system.”

The reasons for issuing executive orders vary, but two main reasons, according to Kezios, are to bypass both the voting process and the time it takes to pass a law.

“The difference between an executive order and a law is that a law has to go through a voting process. That can take a while,” Kezios said. 

Depending on the make-up of Congress and what the bill is, Kezios said the process “might take a few years for a bill to turn into a law.”

Kezios explained that right now, Democrats make up the majority of the House of Representatives, and the Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, so if President Biden were to propose a bill, he could likely have enough support for it to pass. 

So the executive orders he’s passed are more focused on urgency. 

“I don’t think he’s trying to disrespect the process; he just wants to do everything fast,” Kezios said. 

Many of these orders directly overturn Trump’s past orders. 

“Some orders naturally fade with time; other orders can get overturned by way of future executive action,” Kezios said. 

For example, Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and on his first day of office, Biden signed an executive order to rejoin.

How many executive orders have been passed?

With the exception of William Henry Harrison, who died after one month of office, every US president has issued at least one. According to the American Presidency Project, the exact number of executive orders issued by every president is unknown. With the passage of the Federal Register Act in 1936, executive orders began being published and counted, but there are still about 1,500 unnumbered orders.

“Back in 1828, when Jackson got elected, Jackson passed more executive orders in his eight years as president than any of his previous six predecessors,” Kezios said. “If you compare his number of executive orders to today, it’s nothing.”

Kezios said that the role of the government and the scope of events today is just so much bigger.

 “It’s not surprising to me that presidents in the modern era pass more executive orders than they did back then,” she said. 

How are executive orders enforced?

In some cases, they’re not. When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves in the Confederacy, it was not enforced. Since these states seceded from the Union, they did not accept what the Union ordered, Kezios said. It took years before every person was free from slavery.

Other times, a policy is enforced under one administration and then not the next. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, was established by Obama to help people who came to the US as children avoid facing deportation. Kezios said that DACA was enforced until Trump didn’t renew it. Biden has since reinstated it. 

“It’ll be interesting to see if Congress can get a law passed,” she said regarding DACA. 

As for Biden’s recent executive orders, many overturn previous policies, including rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and removing the transgender military ban. 

Paris Climate Agreement

The Paris Climate Agreement is the first global climate pact, which includes almost every country in the world. The goal is to reduce the severity of global warming’s effects by lowering carbon emissions and developing climate solutions. 

Under the Trump Administration, the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and rolled back on more than a hundred environmental regulations

One of the first executive orders Biden signed was to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, meaning, the US is officially back in. 

The significance of this first step is that the US symbolically puts the environment back on a list of priorities. What will really matter, especially in the coming months, though, is how the country follows through. 

The administration is developing goals to lower carbon emission levels by 2030. These goals are being developed ideally by April 22, according to the Scientific American. That’s when Biden will lead a global climate summit on Earth Day. In November, representatives will meet in Glasgow, Scotland. 

Ending the transgender military ban 

Transgender people were banned from serving in the military until 2016 when Obama overturned the ban. Trump then reinstated the ban, and as a result, hundreds of thousands of qualified transgender Americans were prevented from enlisting in the military or kicked out if they were already serving. 

Biden signed an executive order that removed the ban, thus allowing people who are transgender to either enlist, continue serving in the military, or reenlist if they were forced out because of the ban, according to the New York Times.

The impact is that thousands of people can now serve the country while being themselves, and a discriminatory policy no longer dictates who can serve.  

Overall, these are just a few of the many executive orders that Biden recently passed. They affect large amounts of people and pave the way for future actions.

But how effective they are will matter most, especially in the coming months.

“Do executive orders and laws carry the same legal weight? Absolutely. Are all laws equally enforced or all executive orders equally enforced? Maybe not,” Kezios said.