Understanding Executive Orders

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

One of the most prevalent current and controversial issues in the news to date is President Trump’s possible use of executive orders to proclaim a national emergency to secure funding to build a wall along the United States-Mexico border. The use of executive orders is one of the more confusing concepts within the system of separation of powers. The legislative branch makes the law, the executive enforces the law, and the judicial branch interprets the law—right? So, where does the power of executive orders to create public policy (i.e. to fund the building of a border wall) come from?

The essential question, “to what extent can the president use executive orders to create public policy?” is an enduring issue throughout our nation’s history. There are a number of resources teachers can use to help their students investigate and deliberate this enduring issue.
  • IllinoisCivics.org has an inquiry that helps students gather evidence to engage in a Socratic Seminar around the question, “Should the president use executive orders to create public policy?”
  • Civics 101 from New Hampshire Public radio has a short episode explaining executive orders.
  • The Annenberg Project has a video that examines Youngstown Steel & Tube Co v. Sawyer (1952) and the limits the U.S. Supreme Court put on the use of executive orders.
  • The National Constitution Center has a brief article called Executive Orders 101 that gives an overview of the history of executive orders.
  • The National Archives has a listing of past and present executive orders beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  • The History Channel has a wonderful summary of executive orders throughout history and resource links.
  • Our friends at icivics have a mini-lesson on the topic of executive orders.
  • Here is a TEDEd resource to explain executive orders.
  • Teaching Tolerance has a brief breakdown of executive orders to give teachers context to address this enduring issue.
Do you have a favorite resource to help student understand executive orders? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all students for college, career and civic life.

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