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Executive Orders: A Beginner’s Guide

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Although they are not specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, Executive Orders have been considered one of the President’s powers since George Washington’s administration.  Executive Orders are exactly what they sound like—orders produced by the President, as head of the executive branch, that are “generally directed to, and govern actions by, Government officials and agencies.”[1]  These Executive Orders can have the force of law, even if they do not follow the same procedure as bills passed by Congress. [ibid.]

It is the rather idiosyncratic nature of this process which can cause so many problems for researchers seeking information about these Executive Orders.  Luckily, there are several resources, both at the Library of Congress and on the Web, that can help provide access to these researchers.

Resources Available at the Library

An easy-to-use reference guide available at the Law Library of Congress Reading Room is the Congressional Information Service’s Presidential Executive Orders and Proclamations and its attendant Index, which can be used to quickly track down Executive Orders issued from 1789 to 1983 by subject and number, or date.

If the Executive Order you seek was issued after March 1936, it has been published in the Federal Register, and then reprinted in Title 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).  Print and microform versions of these resources can be requested in the Law Library Reading Room. In addition, the Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System (FDsys) provides access to the Federal Register and the CFR from the mid 1990s:

Free Online Resources

Researchers also have the benefit of several free online resources.  A good place to start, particularly if the Executive Order was issued before 2005, is the Table of Congressional Publication Volumes and Presidential Issuances produced by the Law Librarians Society of Washington, D.C.  This Table provides information about which presidential administration issued the Order, what year the Order was issued, and where the Order can be found in a publication.

President's Desk
President’s desk, executive offices, between 1909 and 1932.

Another excellent source is the American Presidency Project, created and maintained by the University of California Santa Barbara.  In addition to collecting presidential speeches, statements, and proclamations, the American Presidency Project also has an almost complete collection of Executive Orders (1826 to the present).

Finally, there are a few governmental websites that offer either Executive Orders or the means by which to find them.  For the most current Executive Orders (2009-present), try the White House’s official compilation of Executive Orders.  Further, the National Archives offers its Codification of Presidential Proclamations and Executive Orders, which is a “convenient reference source proclamations and Executive orders with general applicability and continuing effect.”  It consists of:

  • A chapter-based index that organizes the proclamations and executive orders into 50 chapters, by subject
  • An alphabetical index that allows for the searching of proclamations and executive orders by subject
  • Disposition Tables that list the executive orders by number and by President

For any questions about these sources, or about the Executive Orders found in them, simply contact us via our Ask a Librarian service.

[1] House Comm. on Gov’t Operations, 85th Cong., 1st Sess., Executive Orders and Proclamations: A Study of a Use of Presidential Powers (1957).


Update on November 20, 2013:  The post was updated to fix an outdated link.

Comments (3)

  1. Thank you for letting us know of the website change, Rick. The link has been updated.

  2. According to your record, E.O. should be made public by publishing in writing. And never invoked criminal actvities or militiary action against individuals. Not withstanding the deception of hiding a document for multi years. The obama administration has done so in contrast to other presidents.

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