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US Presidents Make History with Executive Orders


U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order to advance construction of the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House in Washington January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


President Donald Trump has signed many documents in his first week in office.

The documents set out Trump’s policies on health care and international trade, among other things.

Some of these measures are called executive orders. Others are considered White House or presidential memoranda.

In this report, we explain the difference between the two and tell what kind of power each has. We also tell about some of the famous executive orders American presidents have signed.

Executive orders vs. memoranda

Both executive orders and memoranda have what is known as the “force of law.” In other words, they have the same power as legislation approved by Congress and signed by the president.

But there are differences.

Executive orders are numbered and published in the Federal Register, the official record of actions of the United States government. Memoranda do not need to be published in the Federal Register.

Executive orders must identify whether the order is based on the U.S. Constitution or a law. They must also tell the cost of carrying out the order. Memoranda do not have to state such a cost, unless it is more than $100 million.

Every president except one has signed executive orders and memoranda. The exception is William Henry Harrison, who served just one month in office. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only president who served more than two terms, signed 3,721 executive orders – more than anyone else. Most of them dealt with measures to help the country fight the Great Depression and World War II.

Some executive orders have changed history. Here are some of the most famous:

Abraham Lincoln's Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation is on display in the War Room at the Capitol on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, in Albany, N.Y.

Abraham Lincoln's Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation is on display in the War Room at the Capitol on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, in Albany, N.Y.

The Emancipation Proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. This executive order freed all slaves living in states not under Union control during the Civil War. Since the southern states had rebelled against the federal government and left the Union, the order had little effect. But it did ensure that any slaves who escaped to the northern states were free.

The New Deal

During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt signed many executive orders designed to create work for jobless Americans. In 1933, he used an executive order to create the Civil Works Administration. This created about four million new government jobs. He also used an order to create the Export/Import Bank. In 1934, he used an order to create the Rural Electrification Administration to bring electricity to rural, undeveloped areas of the country.

FILE - President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs a bill at the White House, June 16, 1933.

FILE - President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs a bill at the White House, June 16, 1933.

Japanese-American Internment

President Roosevelt signed an executive order shortly after the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941. The order gave military leaders rights to identify some parts of the country as “military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded.” It also required the military to give food, transportation and housing to anyone forced to leave their home. As a result of the order, 120,000 men, women and children were required to leave the U.S. West Coast and stay in internment camps between 1942 and 1945. Most of them were American citizens of Japanese descent.

Desegregation of the Military

In 1948, after the end of World War II, President Harry Truman signed an executive order that officially ended racial barriers in the United States military. The words of the order were simple: “There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the Armed Services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” Before the order was signed, military forces trained, worked and even fought in groups separated by race.

A sign of the times

Very few of the thousands of executive orders and memoranda are as famous as those noted in this story. Some of them are signed because a president was dealing with a Congress unwilling to pass legislation that he wants. Others express the president’s opinions about a subject of importance.

Together these documents tell about American history and the goals of each president and the times in which he served.

I’m Dorothy Gundy..

Kevin Enochs reported this story for VOANews.com. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted his report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

memoranda – n. written records or communication; directives

exclude – v. to prevent or restrict; to bar from consideration or inclusion

internment camps – n. places where Japanese Americans were held during World War II

descent – n. the fact or process of coming from an ancestor

national origin – n. the country where you or your ancestors lived

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