Presidential Executive Order No. 1 was issued on Oct. 20, 1862 by President Lincoln; it established a wartime court in Louisiana. The most famous executive order was also issued by Lincoln a few years later – the Emancipation Proclamation.
Executive orders are derived from the Constitution, which gives the president the authority to determine how to carry out the laws passed by Congress. The trick here is that executive orders can’t make new laws; they can only establish new – and perhaps creative – approaches to implementing existing laws.
President Trump has signed 18 executive orders and presidential memorandums in the past seven days. That sample of orders and memos are a good illustration of the authority – and the constraints – of presidential powers.
An executive order and a presidential memorandum are basically the same thing; the difference is that a memorandum doesn’t have to cite the specific law passed by Congress that the president is implementing, and a memorandum isn’t published in the Federal Register. In other words, an executive order says “this is what the President is going to do,” and a memorandum says “the President is going to do this too, but it shouldn’t be taken as seriously.”
Executive orders and memorandums often give instructions to federal agencies on what elements of a broader law they should focus on. One good example of this is the executive order signed a week ago by President Trump that provides new support and access to healthcare for rural communities. In that executive order, the President cited the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as the broad law he was using to improve access to rural communities.
Executive orders also often illustrate the limits of presidential authority, a good example being the series of executive orders and memorandums that the president signed this past Saturday, intended to provide Americans financial relief during the pandemic.
One of the memorandums signed on Saturday delayed the due date for employers to submit payroll taxes. The idea was that companies would in turn decide to stop taking those taxes out of employees’ paychecks, at least until December.
By looking at the language in the memorandum and seeing what it does not try to do, we can learn a lot about presidential limits.
The memorandum does not give employers or employees a tax break. That power rests unquestionably with Congress. The order only delays when the taxes will be collected. Like the grim reaper, the tax man will come to your door someday, even if you can delay when that “someday” is.
Also, the tax delay is only for employers, and – again, another illustration of the limits of presidential power – it doesn’t tell employers how they should manage this extra time they have to pay the tax. That is, companies could decide to continue to take taxes out of people’s paychecks, knowing that the taxes will still have to be paid someday.
Another memorandum that the president signed on Saturday concerned unemployment benefits. That order illustrates the division in powers between the federal Executive Branch and the authority of the states.
The memorandum provides an extra $400 in unemployment benefits, but in order for it to work, the states would have to put up one-fourth of the money. The memorandum doesn’t require states to put up the money; it “calls on” them to do it, because the President, unless authorized by Congress, can’t make states pay for something they don’t want.
Executive orders and memorandums are reflective of my current position as the father of two pre-teen girls. I can declare the direction the household should go, I can “call on them” to play less Fortnite and eat more fruit, but my orders and their subsequent implementation often just serve to illustrate the limits – both perceived and real –of my paternal power.
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