With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power

With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power

With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power

With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power


The conventional wisdom holds that the president of the United States is weak, hobbled by the separation of powers and the short reach of his formal legal authority. In this first-ever in-depth study of executive orders, Kenneth Mayer deals a strong blow to this view. Taking civil rights and foreign policy as examples, he shows how presidents have used a key tool of executive power to wield their inherent legal authority and pursue policy without congressional interference.

Throughout the nation's life, executive orders have allowed presidents to make momentous, unilateral policy choices: creating and abolishing executive branch agencies, reorganizing administrative and regulatory processes, handling emergencies, and determining how legislation is implemented. From the Louisiana Purchase to the Emancipation Proclamation, from Franklin Roosevelt's establishment of the Executive Office of the President to Bill Clinton's authorization of loan guarantees for Mexico, from Harry Truman's integration of the armed forces to Ronald Reagan's seizures of regulatory control, American presidents have used executive orders (or their equivalents)


He'll sit here, and he'll say “Do this! Do that!” And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating.

(Harry Truman on Eisenhower, cited in Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power)

IN JANUARY 1995 President Bill Clinton, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) met to discuss how the United States should respond to a rapidly deepening economic crisis in Mexico. Faced with the prospect of a complete meltdown of the Mexican economy, Clinton secured the support of Dole and Gingrich for legislation to fund $40 billion in loan guarantees for the Mexican government. Despite the support of congressional leaders, former presidents George Bush and Gerald Ford, and Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, rank-and-file legislators objected to the loan guarantees as a Wall Street bailout. Prospects for approval evaporated when a group of prolabor Democrats, still smarting from the 1993 ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement, formed an unlikely alliance with conservative isolationist Republicans to oppose the plan. By January 20 the GOP leadership declared the legislation dead.

In response Clinton unilaterally authorized $20 billion in loan guarantees on his own authority, relying on a little-noticed program called the Exchange Stabilization Fund, or ESF. Many members of Congress were outraged, arguing that the ESF, created in 1934 to allow the U.S. government to protect the dollar in international currency markets, was never intended for such a use. Yet Congress could not stop the president. Clinton, though humiliated by the Republican sweep in the 1994 elections and weakened by mass defections within his own party, was still able to commit to a multibillion dollar program without any meaningful interference.

On August 17, 1998, Clinton testified before a grand jury, empaneled by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and the question of whether he had lied under oath in the civil lawsuit against him filed by Paula Jones. Although Clinton had for months denied any sexual relationship with Lewinsky . . .

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