Definition and Authority
Presidents have historically utilized various written instruments to direct the executive branch and
These include executive orders, presidential memoranda, and presidential
proclamations. The definitions of these instruments, including the differences between them, are
not easily discernible, as the U.S. Constitution does not contain any provision referring to these
terms or the manner in which the President may communicate directives to the executive branch.
A widely accepted description of executive orders and proclamations comes from a report issued
in 1957 by the House Government Operations Committee:
Executive orders and proclamations are directives or actions by the President. When they are
founded on the authority of the President derived from the Constitution or statute, they may
have the force and effect of law…. In the narrower sense Executive orders and proclamations
are written documents denominated as such…. Executive orders are generally directed to, and
govern actions by, Government officials and agencies. They usually affect private
individuals only indirectly. Proclamations in most instances affect primarily the activities of
private individuals. Since the President has no power or authority over individual citizens
and their rights except where he is granted such power and authority by a provision in the
Constitution or by statute, the President’s proclamations are not legally binding and are at
best hortatory unless based on such grants of authority.3
Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 638 (1952) (Jackson, J. concurring) (stating that where a
President “takes measures incompatible with the express or implied will of Congress” that “[c]ourts can sustain
exclusive presidential control in such case only by disabling the Congress from acting upon the subject. Presidential
claim to a power at once so conclusive and preclusive must be scrutinized with caution …”).
Other written instruments have historically included administrative orders, homeland security presidential directives,
letters on tariffs and international trade, for example. For more background, see CRS Report 98-611, Presidential
Directives: Background and Overview, by Elaine Halchin.
Staff of House Comm. on Government Operations, 85th Cong., 1st Sess., Executive Orders and Proclamations: A
Author Contact Information Vivian S. Chu Legislative Attorney firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-4576 Todd Garvey Legislative Attorney email@example.com, 7-0174 Acknowledgments This report was originally written by T. J. Halstead, Deputy Assistant Director, American Law Division.
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