Watch CBS News

Good Question: What's An Executive Order Vs. A Presidential Memoranda?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- From the border wall to the Dakota Access Pipeline, President Donald Trump has issued 12 executive actions since taking office. Four were executive orders and eight were presidential memoranda.

But what is the difference between the two? And, what do they mean?

Even President George Washington used executive orders. There have been almost 14,000 since 1789. They are not written specifically into the U.S. Constitution, but presidents rely on Article II, which grants the president executive power.

President George W. Bush issued an executive order to create the Department of Homeland Security In October of 2001. On his first full day in office, President Barak Obama signed an executive order putting limits on lobbyists.

"It has the force of law within the executive branch," says Jill Hasday, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Minnesota.

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump (credit: CBS)

What is off-limits for presidential actions: things that are within the authority of Congress, like undoing statutes, raising or lowering taxes or declaring war.

"It's often very controversial," Hasday said. "Over time, presidents have been very aggressive in claiming authority for themselves, and Congress hasn't always been as aggressive in defending its prerogatives."

When a president leaves office, his executive orders still stand. The next president, however, has the ability to overturn them.

Pew Research tallied the number of executive orders issued by presidents since President Abraham Lincoln. It found President Obama issued 277, President George W. Bush issued 291 and President Bill Clinton issued 364.

The president with the most executive orders was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with 3,721.

Experts say looking at the number of executive orders signed by a president is not a good way to measure the use of presidential power. That is partly because there are other ways a president can issue actions, like presidential memoranda. President Obama issued more than 600 of them during his eight years.

Memoranda is not required to be written in to the Federal Registry like executive actions, so they are harder to track.

"It's basically the same thing," Hasday said. "The president can decide whether to issue something like an executive order or memoranda."

Executive orders are often used to create new committees or responsibilities -- like planning and building a border wall -- imposing economic sanctions or declaring states of emergency.

Presidential memoranda generally direct federal bureaus or agencies to do something.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.