By Matthew Brown | USA Today, April 30, 2021
WASHINGTON – Since taking office, President Joe Biden has signed 40 executive orders addressing issues spanning the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to international affairs, labor and voting rights and the environment.
While many of the orders either reversed the actions of former President Donald Trump, or made administrative changes he'd promised on the campaign trail, others have had more consequential impacts.
Many orders signed in his first hours as president overturned the previous administration. With those, he:
Prohibited workplace discrimination in the federal government based on sexual orientation and gender identity;
Revoked Trump's 2017 Interior Enforcement Executive Order, which broadened the categories of undocumented immigrants subject for removal, restarted the Secure Communities program and supported the federal 287(g) deportation program;
Canceled the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline to move oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, rescinding Trump's approval of a project long criticized by environmentalists.
Ended construction of Trump's signature wall on the U.S.-Mexican border.
The executive order is one of the most expansive powers at the president's disposal in policymaking, with the ability to direct the vast executive branch toward any number of tasks. Its use has become increasingly common over the past few decades as partisan gridlock has seen lawmakers in Congress cede more power to the executive branch.
Yet there are both legal and logistical limits to the strength of the executive order in making change; some programs may be overturned in court on legal or procedural grounds. And how an executive order is ultimately carried out may also not necessarily be how a president envisioned.
Here are a handful of orders Biden has enacted in his first 100 days, and where they went after being signed on the Resolute Desk.
Strengthen 'Buy American' rules
Jan. 25: One of Biden's first executive orders was a directive enforcing stricter "Buy American" policies for federal agencies. Most U.S. agencies are already supposed to focus spending on American firms, but a series of contract loopholes prevented that from being the norm.
The thrust of the executive order is expected to be incorporated into the president's $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, which would couple massive federal spending with preferences for domestic manufacturing, among other labor and environmental requirements. Some government accountability organizations are skeptical of the overall impact the order will have.
"There’s already a whole bunch of things on the books; the question has always been enforcement," said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group that tracks government spending. "It really just involves the agencies doing what they’re supposed to do," he said.
The Biden policy also differs slightly from a June 2019 executive order similarly enacted in the Trump era that was formally implemented on Jan. 19, 2021.
Loopholes in federal law allowed products to be stamped "Made in America" for purposes of federal procurement even if barely 51% of the materials used to produce them are domestically made. Biden's rule raises that to 55%, for most products.
Administration officials argue Biden's order goes much further in specificity, such as creating a Made in America Office within the Office of Management and Budget and making proposed waivers and justifications publicly available on the General Services Administration website.
During the first meeting of the Cabinet in April, Biden told his secretaries to take a “hard look at their agency’s spending” and focus more on buying American-made goods and services. It is unclear, however, whether the White House has already enacted many of these policy changes, especially as the OMB still lacks a director.
End Justice Department contracts with private prisons
Jan. 26: In January, the president ordered the Justice Department to not renew any federal contracts with private prisons.
Around 14,000 of 152,000 federal inmates are housed in private prisons. The federal Bureau of Prisons was already in the process of downsizing its contracts with private contractors because of falling prison inmate populations.
As such, the order can be considered "mostly symbolic," according to Jonathan Simon, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the effects of mass incarceration on communities in the U.S.
"The order excludes immigration detention contracts, which far exceed the use of private prisons for ordinary federal prisoners," Simon noted. "Overall, fewer than 10% of people imprisoned for state or federal crimes are in privately run prisons, and most of those are state prisoners."
Assistance to those struggling for food
Feb. 2: In February, Biden ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover 100% of the costs to states and local governments for programs partnering with restaurants and nonprofit groups that are preparing meals for soup kitchens and food pantries.
The order also directed the administration to send out more than $1 billion in aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, in addition to its annual budget and other supplements during the pandemic.
The executive order was modeled after the FEED Act – legislation introduced in May 2020 that would have given increased funding to FEMA to address food assistance programs across the country – and ultimately rolled into the Democrats' $1.9 trillion stimulus package.
"I can say that I have heard from a number of Feeding America food banks that that flexibility has been critical to providing pandemic-related aid to local communities," said Vince Hall, chief government relations officer at Feeding America, the nation's largest network of food banks.
Food banks have received significant federal aid throughout the pandemic; Hall also praised the administration for other programs, including the Department of Agriculture's decision to extend Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer for families with children through the next school year.
"That is a really breathtaking step at alleviating child hunger, especially at a time when we can see a light at the end of the tunnel but we don’t know when we’ll get there," Hill said. "The president is ensuring that we’ll preserve that needed flexibility."
During the pandemic, Congress expanded federal aid to anti-hunger programs multiple times while federal agencies increased flexibility in distributing funds. The Department of Agriculture, for instance, increased flexibility around the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children program, on top of greater federal aid to school lunch programs and SNAP benefits.
The Biden administration has doubled down on these efforts, which charities have praised.
"The Biden administration has been clear that they are interested in addressing the steep increase in all types of hunger, but child hunger, in particular, is a priority. I think in the Trump administration, there was often a concern that we heard expressed from USDA about families getting too much in federal aid – 'How can we get aid to people without them getting this other source of funding?'" said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of No Kid Hungry.
Anti-hunger groups have called on lawmakers in Washington to go further.
"The health crisis will be resolved much faster than the economic crisis," Hill warned. "It took 10 years for us to move past the effects of the 2008 financial crisis and much of that was lost in a year with this pandemic. We need to act now to meet the needs in the community when COVID is no longer the front page of the paper."
End 'family separation' policy
Feb. 2: One of Biden's major policy reversals from the Trump administration was enacted when he rescinded a policy separating children arriving at the US-Mexico border from their parents.
The process of reuniting families, however, has often been slow. Records tracking down where children were sent to be housed are lacking in most cases, leaving administration officials to track down possibly 5,500 separated families with little road map. By early April, the administration had not reunited any migrant families while the working group deliberates on a path forward.
Despite ending the policy, unaccompanied minors are also still arriving at the border in large numbers, leaving the administration to scramble to house thousands of children.
Impose sanctions on Myanmar military personnel and assets
Feb. 11: A February military coup in Myanmar brought swift backlash from the White House and close U.S. allies, who levied harsh sanctions targeted at military elites and firms tied to the armed forces.
Biden signed an executive order specifically targeting certain members of Myanmar's military, as well as high-ranking personnel and their families. In March, the U.S. froze more than $1 billion in assets belonging to high-ranking military officials, according to Reuters.
On April 21, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced further sanctions targeting two high-revenue firms, the Myanma Timber Enterprise and Myanmar Pearl Enterprise, as further punishment for the military coup.
Directs federal government to support voting rights
March 7: The president unveiled an executive order "Promoting Access to Voting" on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a major turning point in the civil rights movement, and evoked calls for racial justice in his declaration.
The order instructs federal agencies to expand voter registration and election information on their websites; determine ways to help increase voter registration nationally; update federal voting information sites; and expand voting access for federal employees.
The order effectively marshals the federal apparatus as a resource to citizens registering to vote at a time when questions of voting access and security dominate the national conversation.
"We applauded those efforts but they’re limited in what they’re going to deliver," said Robert Brandon, president of the Fair Elections Center.
While mobilizing federal resources toward voter education and registration is a significant move by the president, "it pales in comparison with what states are supposed to do," through legislation like the National Voter Registration Act, Brandon contended.
That 1993 law stipulates that states and other bodies that accept federal funding are required to distribute voter registration information through agencies any time an eligible voter comes in contact with an agency, such as at the Department of Motor Vehicles or in schools. Brandon believes the Justice Department should sue states that are not in compliance.
"One of the values of the president’s executive order is that he’s instructing all these agencies to provide a vehicle to actual registration," Brandon said. "The Justice Department has also traditionally had a role to play in enforcing federal voter laws ... it is important that the administration not lose sight of that."