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What Are Executive Orders?

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Sometimes on the news we hear about policies made through executive orders. But what are executive orders and how do they work? An executive order is a directive handed down from a president or state governor without involvement from the legislative or judicial branches.  Executive orders can only be given to federal or state agencies like the Department of Homeland Security or the State Department.
Even though executive orders are not mentioned in the constitution, they have been used by every President since George Washington—and more often in times of war or during national disasters when government policy needs to work more quickly than the traditional legislative process. Sometimes the Supreme Court has stepped in to rein back Presidential powers, like when Harry Truman tried to use executive orders to have the government seize America’s steel plants in the 50s.
Presidents have increasingly used executive orders to make policy that circumvents Congressional control. In recent years, George W. Bush used executive orders to approve more aggressive surveillance after 9/11, and President Obama has used them for several things, including immigration reform.
While executive orders can be an essential tool for Presidents, some fear that their increased use threatens the long-standing checks and balances set up in the Constitution. In that system, Congress makes the laws, the Courts interpret the law, and the President and the executive branch enforces the law.
So the next time you hear a president is issuing an executive order it really means one person is making a decision for 322 million Americans, without input from Congress, state legislatures or Courts, and it can be just as easily changed by the next president with the stroke of a pen and no input from anyone else.