RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
How have presidents used executive orders? During the Korean War, U.S. steel companies and their employees were in a labor disputes. And President Harry Truman worried that there wouldn't be enough steel for the soldiers, so he issued an executive order which he broadcast to the American people.
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HARRY S TRUMAN: I'm directing the secretary of commerce to take possession of the steel mills and to keep them operating.
MARTIN: Within weeks, the Supreme Court had overturned the president's decision. In present times, President Trump wanted a citizenship question added to the 2020 census. The Supreme Court ruled against him. Later today, the president could announce an executive order to try and push ahead with this. Steve Inskeep recently talked with commentator Cokie Roberts, who took listener questions about the history of executive orders.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
First question comes from Andrea E. Maze (ph) on Twitter, who asks, where is the authority in the Constitution or in law for issuing an executive order?
COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: There is none in the Constitution or in law, but there is the right of an executive order. Because if the president is going to exercise his broad powers issuing executive directors, serving as commander in chief, basically running the executive branch of the government, then he needs to have this power. It's the same as the investigative power of a Congress. Not written down, but always agreed to.
INSKEEP: Well, let's get to our next question, then.
BRIAN GAY: This is Brian Gay (ph) from East Hampton, Conn. When was the first executive order issued, and was it then challenged in the courts?
ROBERTS: Well, not surprisingly, the first executive order came from George Washington, who, on June 8, 1789 - so not long at all after the first Congress started - he basically asked the heads of the various federal agencies, what are you doing? Tell me what you're up to. He also issued a proclamation calling for a day of Thanksgiving.
And, of course, any executive order can be challenged in court, and Congress can pass a law overturning an executive order. But that law is subject to veto, and then it would be pretty hard to get the two-thirds necessary to override a veto.
INSKEEP: We have another question now from Ken Mayer (ph) in the San Francisco Bay Area. And this question gets to the situation we might conceivably find ourselves in if the president were to go through with an executive order now.
KEN MAYER: When was the last time that a sitting president issued an executive order after losing with the Supreme Court of the United States?
ROBERTS: Well, FDR was constantly battling the court both on executive orders and on legislation. Certainly, the most famous time was when Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War.
INSKEEP: Well, we have one more question now, and it comes from @Mainefly. That's the handle on Twitter. And the question is, are presidents using executive orders more and more over time?
ROBERTS: Certainly, Franklin Roosevelt did. He hit the record with more than 3,000 executive orders.
ROBERTS: But the truth is these executive orders have been used for very, very big things. Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. FDR establishing Japanese intern camps. Truman desegregating the Army. Ike putting the Arkansas National Guard under federal control to desegregate the schools. These were enormous policy changes for our government. The problem with an executive order is any subsequent president can undo them. So presidents tried to turn them into law. Or in the case of freeing the slaves, a constitutional amendment.
INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks for the insights.
ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Steve.
INSKEEP: And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.