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How Executive Orders Work

Controversy Over Executive Orders

Executive orders offer a powerful and immediate way for a president to advance his policy priorities. A White House aide to President Bill Clinton described the lure of executive orders this way: "Stroke of the pen, law of the land" [source: Wolf]. President Ronald Reagan used the direct power of executive orders to peel back layers of government regulation that he and his administration believed were hampering economic growth. President George W. Bush signed executive orders that approved more aggressive surveillance after 9/11 and limited public access to presidential documents. And President Obama has increasingly relied on executive orders to forward his agenda in the face of an intransigent Congress.

President George W. Bush issued several controversial executive orders surrounding the gathering of intelligence in the war on terror. Arguably the most controversial was a secret executive order he signed in 2002, authorizing the National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop without a warrant on phone calls made by U.S. citizens and others living in the United States. The NSA had previously been limited exclusively to intelligence gathering operations outside of the country [source: Risen]. Critics of Bush's executive order accuse the NSA of conducting unconstitutional searches under the president's authorization. The Bush administration defended the secret program as necessary to root out homegrown terrorist plots. The 9/11 attackers, after all, had lived in the U.S. while making the final preparation for their hijacking plot.

On his very first day in office, President Obama signed three executive orders to draw a clear distinction between the policies of his administration and his predecessor's. One of the orders essentially banned the use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques like waterboarding and instructed the CIA and the armed forces to strictly follow the interrogation procedures outlined in the Army field manual [source: CNN]. The most controversial executive order called for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year. Naysayers who called the order unrealistic were eventually proven correct: The president issued another executive order two years later allowing for the continued detention of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo, with or without a formal charge [source: Farley]. The third created a task force designed to review detention policies and procedures [source: CNN].

In the spring of 2012, President Obama launched an aggressive campaign of executive orders to combat what he viewed as an intractable Congress. Since Congress refused to vote on legislation that would forward the Obama administration's policies on the economy, job creation, education, energy and foreign policy, the president and his advisers decided to do as much as could be done without Congress' help at all [source: Savage]. The campaign, called "We Can't Wait," has included tougher regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, a revamped deportation policy, and better education and employment options for returning troops [source: Rosenthal]. The president has received sharp criticism for flexing his executive muscle, but even his critics acknowledge that Obama is far from the first president to wield executive orders as a political weapon.

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