The first couple of weeks of President Donald Trump's administration have been chock-full of sweeping, inflammatory executive action, that much can't be denied. And as such, it's no surprise that you might be wondering just how much executive ordering he can do ― is there a limit or a cap on the number, perhaps? In other words, how many executive orders can a president use? Is this just going to continue for years, or is there a hard cap on how many he gets?
The answer, sad to say if you're a political progressive who fears Trump's agenda ― or happily, if you're a Republican who really only cared about executive restraint when Obama was the one wielding the pen ― is nope. There's no limit on how many executive orders a president can sign. They're one of the biggest powers of the office, even though they can be swiftly undone by future presidents, making them far less durable than actual laws passed by Congress.
Theoretically, provided all his orders fell within what's legally permissible under existing precedent and interpretation of executive authority afforded by the Constitution, Trump could sign an executive order every single day for the rest of his presidency. Or two, or three! There is simply no limit to the number.
As the Pew Research Center's Kristen Bialik detailed, former president Barack Obama actually signed the fewest executive orders by annual average of any president since Grover Cleveland ― Obama signed just 35 per year, as compared to Cleveland's 32 per year across his two non-consecutive terms. Obama's predecessor, former president George W. Bush, signed an average of 36 of them per year.
Here are the raw quantitative totals for executive orders by the last ten American presidents. It's worth noting that this is strictly a measure of sum, and doesn't reflect the scale, impact, or lawfulness of the orders, which is a much better basis on which to criticize them.
- Barack Obama, 277 total orders.
- George W. Bush, 291 total orders.
- Bill Clinton, 364 total orders.
- George H.W. Bush, 166 total orders (in only one term).
- Ronald Reagan, 381 total orders.
- Jimmy Carter, 344 total orders (in only one term).
- Gerald Ford, 169 total orders (in only one abbreviated term).
- Richard Nixon, 346 total orders (in one full term and one abbreviated term).
- Lyndon Johnson, 325 total orders (in one abbreviated term and one full term).
- John F. Kennedy, 214 total orders.
The all-time record holder for most executive orders signed makes perfect sense when you consider how many terms he served. It's Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who signed a staggering 3,721 of them over his three terms in office, plus the few months of his fourth term he served before his death in 1945. That's a huge number even taken annually ― he signed 307 per year on average, more than Obama signed in his entire presidency.
This is all a way of giving some perspective, because here's the fact: if Trump wants to sign an executive order, he can sign it. Whether it'll hold up against a legal challenge is one question, but there's no cap that keeps him from going hog wild. So far, for the record, he's signed seven of them, and quite a few more presidential memos.