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Executive Orders: A Beginner’s Guide

Executive Order, Proclamation, or Executive Memorandum?

President Roosevelt signing his 1902 Thanksgiving Proclamation act. 1902. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

In addition to Executive Orders, presidents may also issue Proclamations and Executive Memoranda. As all three directives are produced by the President, researchers can sometimes have difficulties understanding which type of document they seek. While we do not have an “official” definition for these directives, we can look to their typical characteristics to tell them apart.

Executive Orders generally:

  • are "directed to, and govern actions by, Government officials and agencies";
  • have the force of law if the topic of the Executive order is "founded on the authority of the President derived from the Constitution or statute"; and
  • are required by law to be published in the Federal Register (1936 to present) and in Title 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations (1938 to present).

Proclamations typically:

  • deal with the activities of private individuals;
  • do not have the force and effect of law, unless the President is given the authority over private individuals by the Constitution or a federal statute; and
  • are ceremonial in nature now, but historically did much more “heavy lifting”.

Executive Memoranda are very similar to Executive Orders, except:

  • they are not required by law to be printed in the Federal Register;
  • they are not required to cite the President’s legal authority (see 1 C.F.R. § 19.1); and
  • the Office of Management and Budget is not required to issue a “Budgetary Impact Statement” on Executive Memoranda.