The historical presidency: a theoretical critique of the unitary executive framework: rethinking the first-mover advantage, collective-action advantage, and informational advantage.
Rouse's memo captures a fundamental and recurring problem that frames the central argument of this article: structural advantages said to follow from the constitutional design of the unitary executive--a first-mover advantage, a collective-action advantage, and an informational advantage--are of limited value without presidential control over administration, and, as even a brief historical analysis will show, presidential control over administration varies widely from one incumbent to the next. More specifically, I demonstrate that when the president relies on the established collective-action and informational arrangement, it often obstructs or compromises his first-mover advantage. Conversely, his first-mover advantage in a policy domain is strengthened when he restructures the established collective-action and informational arrangement.
Incorporating both a critique of several leading theoretical concepts in the field of presidential studies as well as an empirical analysis that ranges widely over the relevant history, this article proceeds as follows. In the next section, I examine the assumptions of the unitary executive framework. In the following two sections, I put the unitary executive framework to a test using cases from the early nineteenth century and the twenty-first century, respectively. And in the last section, I briefly discuss an alternative approach to studying the presidency. Throughout I reference the administration of public finance, broadly defined to include expenditures, taxation, and money and banking, or, in modern terms, fiscal policy and monetary policy.
The Unitary Executive Framework
Research on the presidency was long criticized for being too descriptive, atheoretical, and poorly designed. In contrast to other areas of political inquiry, systematic approaches, scholars claimed, were absent in presidential studies (Wayne 1983; King and Ragsdale 1988; Edwards et al. 1993). Accordingly, Richard Neustadt's book, Presidential Power, the leading work in the field for several decades--and one that emphasizes the complexities of the modern president's leadership position, the importance of bargaining, and the role of individual skill in maximizing presidential power within a governmental structure of "separated institutions sharing powers"--came under attack as the main target of this critique (1960, 39). The problem, Terry Moe argues, is that "Neustadt did not offer a coherent, well-developed theory, but rather a loose set of ideas ... that were not formulated with much precision" (2009, 703).
Taking direct aim at the perceived shortcomings that Neustadt's work represents, the so-called rational choice "revolution" in presidential studies has proceeded, in Moe's words, to bring "simplicity, clarity, logical rigor, and deductive power" to the study of the presidency (2009, 704). Although each contribution stands on its own merits, this line of research as a whole elaborates a set of structural claims that allegedly follow from executive unity. The Constitution, these scholars contend, endows the president with a first-mover advantage, a collective-action advantage, and an informational advantage relative to the other branches of government. Kenneth Mayer, for example, emphasizes that the president can take "advantage of his ability to move first" (2001, 152). (1) David Lewis and Terry Moe stress, "Presidents are not hobbled by collective action problems. Supreme within their own institutions, they can simply make authoritative decisions about what to do and then do it" (2014, 383). (2) And Brandice Canes-Wrone highlights the president's ability to use an "informational advantage to try to convince the Congress and electorate that his preferred policy is the one that will advance their interests" (2006, 32). (3)
With these structural advantages in hand, this literature cuts through much of the complexity that prior research had dwelled upon. The executive branch becomes a unitary actor--the president--operating in relation to Congress or the Court. The policymaking process is modeled as an iterated game, starting over each year or congressional term. And the parameters of the policy realm of interest, its administrative operations, and presidential control all remain fixed, impervious to change from one period to the next. From this perspective, the president simply employs one fixed structural advantage or another to shift the policy status quo and variation is then accounted for with reference to peripheral institutional conditions such as party control of the presidency, congressional support, and public approval.
William Howell's work, Power Without Persuasion, is a leading example of this approach, as it emphasizes how all three structural advantages enhance presidential power via executive orders. "The most important is that the president moves policy first and thereby places upon Congress and the courts the burden of revising a new political landscape," Howell reasons. Second, "the president acts alone," unconstrained by Congress' collective-action problems. And third, "the president often knows more about policy matters than do members of Congress, and he uses this fact to his advantage when deciding to act unilaterally." These structural advantages, Howell concludes, help to "[distinguish] unilateral powers from all other sources of influence. In this sense, Neustadt is turned upside-down, for unilateral action is the virtual antithesis of bargaining and persuading. Here, presidents just act" (2003, 14-15, 101-02).
Although Howell's work is an important contribution to our understanding of how the total number of executive orders issued varies in relation to certain institutional conditions, the unilateral action framework is analytically narrow and temporally restrictive. To begin with, consider the assumption underlying the first-mover advantage. The president acts first due to the design of his office, Howell reasons, "and thereby places upon Congress and the courts the burden of revising a new political landscape." Taking this reasoning further, it becomes impossible for incumbents to constrain their successors, as the assumption is that all presidents exercise the same first-mover advantage with the policy-making process starting anew each congressional period. Remove this structural conceit, however, and the first-mover advantage narrows considerably. The notion that all presidents are equally equipped to make and remake policy, reversing their predecessors' actions as they please, overlooks the process by which shifts in policy and new administrative arrangements are institutionalized. In other words, presidential initiatives may constrain Congress or the Court, but presidents who create a "new political landscape" also constrain their successors. (4)
Next, consider the two assumptions that "the president acts alone" and "often knows more about policy matters than do members of Congress." Here, Howell grants the president the benefit of a collective-action advantage without addressing the cost of information. Yet the simple fact of the matter is that if the president acts alone he is unlikely to have an informational advantage. Conversely, if he has an informational advantage there is likely a collective-action cost. Howell sidesteps this issue by ignoring the absolute cost and assuming that whatever it is it must be less for the president than for Congress or the Court. Or, to put it differently, he assumes that the president maintains structural advantages relative to the other branches of government. However, like the first-mover advantage, the benefit of a relative inter-branch collective-action or informational advantage becomes more complicated if we introduce realistic assumptions about "bounded rationality" and "durable shifts" in governance and policy (see Simon 1957; Orren and Skowronek 2004). The president's control over his own administration, for example, is always necessarily incomplete due to limited time, limited knowledge, and a constitutional system comprising multiple structural constraints that make it difficult to change existing institutional arrangements. (5) Accordingly, institutions within the executive branch may provide the president with an informational advantage relative to Congress or the Court, or they may use that information to constrain an incumbent with preferences different from their own. At the same time, as new institutions are created or as older ones are restructured, collective-action costs change. In certain cases, even if the president maintains a relative inter-branch advantage, the absolute cost may be so high that the entire government fails to act, leaving the policy status quo in place or allowing it to "drift" (see Hacker 2004; Hacker and Pierson 2014).
To appreciate the full extent of the problems with the unitary executive framework in operation, consider, for example, the president's structural advantages during the Hayes administration, a fair test if these advantages derive directly from the constitutional design of the office. Rutherford Hayes assumed the presidency in 1877, 12 years after the end of the Civil War, and he appointed John Sherman, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, as Treasury secretary. Underscoring the limits of the new president's first-mover advantage, Sherman concluded, "The entire system of national finance then existing grew out of the Civil War" (1895, 565, emphasis added). The policy alternatives available to the president were therefore significantly narrowed before he even assumed office. Moreover, the Treasury secretary acknowledged that based on his own legislative experience of more than two decades, he had acquired "a full knowledge of the several laws that were to be executed" (ibid.). This was an informational advantage to be sure, but it did not necessarily empower the president. As the Treasury secretary himself explained,
The impression prevailed that the President regarded these heads of departments, invested by law with specific and independent duties, as mere subordinates, whose functions he might assume. This is not the true theory of our government. The President is in-trusted by the constitution and laws with important powers, and so by law are the heads of departments. The President has no more right to control or exercise the powers conferred by law upon them than they have to control him in the discharge of his duties. (ibid., 449, emphasis added)
This assertion was not an idle concern, nor is it easily discounted in building a theory. "While Congress was drifting to a sound financial policy," Sherman recalled, "[President Johnson] and his Secretary of the Treasury were widely divergent" (1895, 441). Specifically, on the same day that the Treasury secretary recommended paying and canceling all United States notes, the president endorsed a repudiation of the debt in his annual message to Congress. A similar division followed in 1879 under Hayes and Sherman (see Hinsdale 1911, 226). In this case, the currency issue was the leading subject in the president's annual message. Moreover, the president took time to comment on the matter in his diary, noting the Treasury secretary recommends that "legal tender notes ought to be, or may very well be a part of the paper currency of the Country." The president then added, "[I]n my opinion these are not in a time of peace a Constitutional Currency and they are a dangerous currency" (Hayes 1964, 240). In the end, the Treasury secretary's position prevailed notwithstanding the president's strong opposition, meaning that the established "system of national finance" narrowed any first-mover advantage from the start, confining it to the issue of currency and a few other matters rather than the full scope of public finance addressed during the Civil War. Then, within this narrowed domain, the Treasury secretary compromised the first-mover advantage in practice, as he recommended to Congress a policy that the president himself believed was unconstitutional and "dangerous."
Although this is a single example and one that is limited to a split between the president and the Treasury secretary in the realm of legislative policy making, the priority and attention that the president awarded the subject would seem to suggest that divisions within the executive branch likely occur with some frequency for all types of policymaking processes and domains. Or, to put it differently, if the established collective-action and informational arrangement effectively compromised the president's first-mover advantage for such a critical and public issue, how reasonable is it to assume that this practice does not occur with some regularity for less controversial matters or for those that simply receive little or no attention? (6)
Lastly, and expanding the critique, at the same time that political scientists have exploited the conceit that the president has complete control over the executive branch, legal scholars have complained that he does not. The basic contention of proponents of the unitary executive theory in legal studies is that presidential control is unjustly compromised and therefore it should be more complete. Steven Calabresi and Christopher Yoo, for example, explain, "The classic theory of the unitary executive insists only that whatever executive power might exist must be exercised subject to presidential supervision and control" (2008, 20). Additionally, other legal scholars take a more expansive approach, addressing what exactly "might exist" in the executive power. John Yoo, for example, argues that it grants the president sweeping authority in foreign affairs and war (2005). Regardless of the reach of any particular argument, however, the legal theory at its core focuses on the institutional arrangements--both extensive and repeatedly affirmed--that violate the unitary principle and weaken the president's control over the executive branch. (7)
While the legal theory of the unitary executive seeks to bring about a state of affairs that the political theory simply assumes exists, the two share a critical shortcoming. Both fail to reckon with the rudiments of organization theory or to consider the problem of feasibility--specifically, the fact that it is simply not credible to expect presidents, one after the next, to maintain complete control over the executive branch. As Herbert Simon reasoned several decades ago, the principle of "unity of command" is "incompatible with the principle of specialization" (1957, 22-23). Or, to put it in terms specific to the presidency, even in cases when the president has complete legal control over executive operations, his actual control is necessarily incomplete.
This critique raises a crucial question: If we accept the entirely realistic proposition that presidents have less than perfect control over their own administrations, are we left to wallow in complexity? The rational choice revolution in presidential studies offers a simple theory as an alternative to no theory at all. Yet certainly there are other options and historical-institutionalism offers one. Control over administration is fundamental to the presidency and policy making alike, and it presents itself as an historical variable that is open to study systematically. The expectation moving forward is therefore not to sacrifice theory for the sake of complexity, but rather to begin to develop a more complete and empirically compelling theory.
A Theoretical Paradox: Jefferson and Jackson
Looking at the political system from the post--Civil War perspective of the 1880s--roughly five years after Rutherford Hayes left office--Woodrow Wilson remarked,
At the very first session of Congress steps were taken towards parceling out executive work amongst several departments, according to a then sufficiently thorough division of labor; and if the President of that day was not able to direct administrative details, of course the President of today is infinitely less able to do so, and must content himself with such general supervision as he may find time to exercise. (1885, 45, emphasis added)
Although Wilson was no doubt correct in concluding that the expansion of the administrative state would magnify the overall problem of presidential control, this broader historical trend has not diminished the variability that can be observed from one incumbent to the next within the modern or early periods--variability that the unitary executive framework ignores.
Consider two early period cases, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. On March 23, 1804, while serving in office with unified party control of the government, Jefferson signed a bill that authorized the Bank of the United States to create a branch in New Orleans despite the fact that he opposed the larger institution on constitutional grounds (see Adams 1879, 308-09, 321-22; Holds-worth 1910, 71-72; Walters 1969, 171-73; McCraw 2012, 290-91). More than a decade earlier, for example, he vehemently fought the original Bank charter, recommending that George Washington veto the bill, as "[t]he negative of the President is the shield provided by the constitution." (8) Moreover, two years into his own administration, Jefferson suggested to Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin that they should attempt to prevent the Bank from obtaining an "exclusive monopoly" of the government's deposits. Yet, relying on the financial institution for assistance in carrying out his own departmental responsibilities, Gallatin told the president in no uncertain terms that it was "not proper to displease" the directors of the Bank "because they place our money where we may want it, from one end of the Union to the other." (9)
After this initial setback, Jefferson turned to the idea of the national welfare to make his case. "It is certainly for the public good to keep all the banks competitors for our favors by a judicious distribution of [the government's deposits]," he informed the Treasury secretary, "and thus to engage the individuals who belong to [the various banks] in the support of the reformed order of things, or at least in an acquiescence under it." Yet, evidently operating with a substantial degree of independence--and no doubt continuing to rely on the Bank's services--Gallatin simply ignored the president's recommendation. Jefferson therefore tried a more political approach the following year. "I am decidedly in favor of making all the banks Republican," he explained, "by sharing deposits among them in proportion to the dispositions they show; if the law now forbids it, we should not permit another session of Congress to pass without amending it." (11) Again, Gallatin ignored the recommendation.
Finally, in late 1803, just four months before signing the law to expand the Bank, Jefferson exploded, writing to Gallatin, "This institution is one of the most deadly hostility existing against the principles [and] form of our constitution.... Now, while we are strong, it is the greatest duty we owe ... to bring this powerful enemy to a perfect subordination." Yet, not an expert himself, the president concluded the letter by adding, "I pray for you to turn this subject in your mind, and to give it the benefit of your knowledge of details; whereas, I have only very general views of the subject." (12) In the end, Jefferson's determination to dismantle or reform the Bank did not falter due to a lack of support in Congress or from the public. Rather, his recommendations simply failed to move beyond his own Treasury secretary. As a result, the powerful financial institution not only survived the political "revolution of 1800," its reach was expanded from Philadelphia to the new capital in Washington and outward to the Louisiana territory, the great legacy of Jefferson's presidency. (13)
Where Jefferson pleaded in vain for action, Andrew Jackson swept aside the opposition. On July 10, 1832, the Democratic president vetoed a bill renewing the charter for the second Bank of the United States (see Dewey 1910; Steiner 1922, 100-65; Remini 1967; Remini 1998a, 331-73; Remini 1998b, 84-178; Ellis and Kirk 1998). (14) In his opinion, the law was "incompatible with the Constitution and sound policy." Moreover, the impending election, he declared, would determine whether the Bank veto was "sustained by [his] fellow-citizens." (15) This move and the next fundamentally altered the policymaking process and parameters of presidential control. Congress, the president insisted, now had to consult the other elected branch or risk a veto. Like Jefferson, however, Jackson had appointed a Treasury secretary, Louis McLane, who supported the Bank. In the annual report on the finances, submitted just seven months before the veto, McLane, for example, defended both "the authority of the present Government to create [the Bank]" and its "indispensable necessity" (1837, 224-25). Unlike Jefferson, Jackson pushed back, turning to Roger Taney, the loyal attorney general whose legal experience and knowledge of banking proved critical during the Bank War. While all of the other department heads advised Jackson to sign the bill, the attorney general developed a lengthy argument for a veto on the grounds that the Bank was inexpedient and unconstitutional.
After the president's veto and reelection, the attorney general continued the attack on the Bank, submitting an extensive report that recommended the removal of the government's deposits in order to destroy the institution once and for all. Again, Jackson concurred. The problem, however, was that Congress had explicitly vested this authority with the Treasury secretary, not the president. And, in line with his opposition to the veto, McLane also opposed the removal decision. As a result, Jackson reshuffled his cabinet, transferring McLane to the State Department and appointing William Duane, a known critic of the Bank, to head the Treasury. Yet it was soon evident that Duane, too, opposed removing the government's deposits despite an order for him to act on the president's authority. This led to another quick reshuffling. Jackson now replaced Duane with Taney, who carried out the removal order as a recess appointee before Congress reconvened and subsequently rejected his nomination. In the end, although Jefferson had more political support in Congress than Jackson, the latter relied on a combination of innovative appointments and procedures to destroy the Bank, effectively shifting control from the Treasury secretary to the president. Compared, for example, to Gallatin's near 13-year tenure as Treasury secretary during the Jefferson and Madison administrations, Jackson went through four Treasury secretaries in a little over five years. (16)
Formally speaking, Jefferson and Jackson occupied the same position. Jefferson himself, however, was under no illusion that he had a first-mover advantage in the domain of public finance. By his second year in office, for example, he acknowledged that for all practical purposes George Washington's powers in this regard had undercut his own. "When this government was first established, it was possible to have kept it going on true principles," Jefferson explained, "but the ... ideas of [Treasury Secretary Alexander] Hamilton destroyed that hope in the bud.... It mortifies me to be strengthening principles which I deem radically vicious, but this vice is entailed on us by the first error." (17)
Accepting Jefferson's own admission that earlier developments effectively impaired his ability to change the established course in public finance, why did the "first error" not constrain Jackson as well? Or, to put it differently, why did Jackson hold a first-mover advantage, while Jefferson did not? This question becomes all the more critical--and the limitations of the unitary executive framework as an analytical tool become all the more apparent--when we consider not only the different levels of political support but also the distinct statutory restrictions confronting the two presidents. According to the assumptions and reasoning of the unitary executive framework, both Jefferson and Jackson should have exercised first-mover advantages. Moreover, Jefferson's first-mover advantage should have been more effective due to his greater political support and legal authority. In reality, however, the opposite occurred. Jackson succeeded in removing the government's deposits at a time when party control of the government was divided and the removal power was vested solely in the Treasury secretary under the second Bank's charter, whereas Jefferson failed to act at a time when party control of the government was unified and the first Bank's charter contained no stipulation that the government had to deposit its funds with it in the first place (see Holds-worth 1910, 58-59; Dewey 1910, 174-75). (18)
Taking these and other factors into account, a satisfactory answer to the preceding question would seem to require a situational analysis and a theory laying out the conditions under which presidents can change administrative arrangements from time to time. I take up this issue elsewhere (O'Brien n.d.). Here, I simply call attention to the elimination of the national debt in the 1830s, one of a number of important events that weakened the foundation of the old system of administration. Specifically, with the impending elimination of the debt, the Bank began to play a less important role--to apply Gallatin's own argument--in "plac[ing} our money where we may want it, from one end of the Union to the other" and therefore the perceived consequences of "displeas[ing}" its directors or dismantling it altogether also diminished. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this article, the point is simply to demonstrate that substantial variation in presidential control exists independent of purely political factors, calling into question the very foundation of the unitary executive framework.
The Collective-Action-and-Informational-Advantage Problem: The Obama Presidency
The initial turn to the distant past is intended to demonstrate that the unitary executive framework is often a less-than-effective analytical tool for studying the presidency and policy making even for cases in which theoretically it should be the most effective, namely when the system of administration is relatively simple. Moving now to the significantly more complex and administratively dense modern period--the period for which the unitary executive framework is most commonly employed--I use cases from the Obama presidency to show that all three of the president's assumed structural advantages often fail to hold in practice. Or, to build on Pete Rouse's earlier description of the problem, I demonstrate that, separate from the issue of congressional gridlock or other conventional political constraints, the established system of administration "adversely affect[ed] execution of the policy process."
To start, consider the limits of Barack Obama's structural first-mover advantage in responding to the financial crisis (see Suskind 2011, 189-220, 246-72; Scheiber 2012, 63-94, 112-33, 170-91, 212-30; Geithner 2014, 258-438; Bernanke 2015, 133-411). Three principals were managing this issue at the end of the Bush administration: Henry Paulson, the secretary of the Treasury; Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; and Timothy Geithner, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In November 2008, after attacking Bush for "eight years of failed economic policies," the president-elect announced the appointment of Geithner as the next Treasury secretary. (19) "Obama's decision gratified me," Paulson recalled. "... [I]t meant, I felt, that many of our policies would be pursued," and "the markets saw Tim's nomination to succeed me as a sign of continuity" (Paulson 2010, 410). Likewise, Geithner himself later acknowledged, "I didn't care much about discontinuity" (Geithner 2014, 262). Indeed, once in office, the experienced Treasury secretary simply ignored the new president's order to put together a proposal for restructuring the troubled banking system and instead used his own informational advantage and direct control over the Treasury Department to develop a "stress test." Regarding his own standing within the administration at the time, Geithner, for example, explained, "I wasn't that worried about getting micromanaged ... because I knew that after living the crisis I'd have a big knowledge advantage over my new colleagues" (ibid., 251). Obama also acknowledged the general lack of responsiveness from his Treasury secretary, though, careful to avoid the issue of insubordination, he would only admit, "I was often pushing, hard, and the speed with which the bureaucracy could exercise my decision was slower than I wanted" (Suskind 2011, 458). In this case, the established collective-action and informational arrangement obstructed the president's first-mover advantage.
Next, consider the limits of Obama's structural informational advantage in responding to the Great Recession (see Suskind 2011, 152-58, 350-59; Grunwald 2012, 111-243; Lizza 2012; Scheiber 2012, 24-62; Geithner 2014, 262-66). Larry Summers, the incoming director of the National Economic Council and a former Clinton administration Treasury secretary, unilaterally rejected a $1.8 trillion stimulus proposal from Christina Romer, the chairman-designate of the Council of Economic Advisers. Deeming the proposal impractical due to supposed opposition in Congress, Summers refused to include it as one of the economic recovery options listed in a 57-page memo submitted to the president-elect on December 15, 2008. Yet, after narrowing the alternatives from $550 billion to $890 billion for political reasons, Summers proceeded to describe these as economic alternatives first and foremost, explaining that selecting a stimulus package at the higher end of this range "was an economic judgment that would need to be combined with political judgments about what is feasible" (2008, 6). Moreover, based on a likely flawed comparison to the bond market strategy during the Clinton administration, he quickly dismissed other alternatives, concluding, "To accomplish a more significant reduction in the output gap would require stimulus of well over $1 trillion based on purely mechanical assumptions--which would likely not accomplish the goal because of the impact it would have on markets" (ibid., 10). (20)
With Summers' memo establishing the set of alternatives, Obama settled on a $775 billion proposal the following day, not knowing that his chief economic adviser charged with promoting "maximum employment" and avoiding a repeat of the Great Depression believed both that a $1.8 trillion stimulus was necessary to close the projected output gap in the economy and that a larger proposal would be more effective. (21) Furthermore, after Summers blocked Romer's proposal, Rahm Emanuel, the incoming chief of staff, tasked Romer and Jared Bernstein with putting together an analysis of the stimulus bill's likely impact. Released on January 10, 2009, the report estimated a baseline effect rather than a relative one, predicting that unemployment would peak at roughly 9% in early 2010 without the stimulus or would remain below 8% with it (Romer and Bernstein 2009, 4). The unemployment rate, however, was already 8.3%--a fact that would not be known until the following month--and it remained above 9% for the next thirty months. Not surprisingly, Republicans used the continued high unemployment rate along with the administration's own projection to argue rather successfully that the stimulus bill had failed from start. (22) In this case, any informational advantage was essentially nonexistent in view of the fact that the president himself did not have direct access to all of the information within the executive branch and that which he was provided--along with the public--proved incorrect. Accordingly, rather than provide an informational advantage, the established collective-action and informational arrangement compromised the president's first-mover advantage. This became even more evident when, for example, Obama later pushed to get additional spending measures passed but failed despite Summers' earlier assurance that "[i]t is easier to add down the road to insufficient fiscal stimulus than to subtract from excessive ... stimulus" (2008, 12).
Finally, consider the limits of Obama's structural collective-action advantage in handling budget negotiations with the Republican-controlled House following the midterm election (see Woodward 2012). After concluding that "all other options [were] closed," Jack Lew, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and another Clinton administration alumnus, first put forward the idea of the budget sequestration--an automatic $1.2 trillion reduction in federal spending. (23) This new proposal was based on the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act of 1985, which Lew was familiar with having worked for House Speaker Tip O'Neill during the 1980s. Essentially, the plan was to threaten Democrats and Republicans with unpalatable, across-the-board spending cuts in order to force a compromise on the budget and resolve the debt-ceiling standoff. Yet, with both sides failing to reach an agreement, the automatic cuts were triggered while the unemployment rate was still hovering near 8%. In the end, the negotiations were so mishandled that several months before the administration's own proposal went into effect, Obama inaccurately declared, "The sequester is not something I proposed, it's something that Congress proposed. It will not happen." (24) Moreover, after the cuts did happen, he proceeded to describe them in public as "just dumb." (25)
Offering his own account of where things went wrong, Speaker of the House John Boehner concluded, "The president, I think, was ill-served by his team. Nobody in charge, no process, I just don't know how the place works.... There's no process for making a decision in this White House. There's nobody in charge" (Woodward 2012, 375). Additionally, Larry Summers, the principal actually responsible for "[coordinating] the economic policy-making process," had already reached the same conclusion, admitting, "We're home alone. There's no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes" (Suskind 2011, 301). (26) In this case, similar to the president's other supposed structural advantages, his collective-action advantage was all but nonexistent given that the only alternative he had from which to choose was, in his own words, "just dumb." Accordingly, rather than provide a collective-action advantage, the established collective-action and informational arrangement compromised the president's first-mover advantage. This, too, became even more apparent when, for example, Obama later repeatedly asked Congress to "fully reverse" the sequestration cuts that his administration had proposed in the first place. (27)
Like Jefferson two centuries earlier, Obama struggled to exercise control over the established system of administration for public finance and it is not difficult to understand why. For just this single policy domain--and, recall, there were also two ongoing wars and a major healthcare proposal in the works--an inexperienced, overburdened president was attempting to manage extremely complex policies with the support of several experienced principals and a multi-tiered administrative arrangement that he had inherited from his predecessors. Consequently, even for the cases in which Obama had substantial legal control over an institution and its principal--in other words, cases excluding the Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget Office, both of which add an entirely new dimension to the problem of presidential control--his actual control was often minimal. As Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, acknowledged more generally, the National Economic Council was layered on top of the Council of Economic Advisers and "the lines of organization were so jumbled from the start that no one was quite sure of their role, or what they were supposed to be doing" (Suskind 2011, 277).
Conclusion: An Historical-Institutional Alternative
As the foundational assumption of the unitary executive framework is that all presidents hold the same structural advantages relative to the other branches of government, the central aim of this article is to demonstrate that structural advantages within a policy domain change from time to time and that the established collective-action and informational arrangement often operates as an intra-branch constraint in the process of providing an inter-branch advantage. As a rule, the presidents who exercise the most control in a policy domain--that is, possess the strongest first-mover advantage--are the ones who restructure the established administrative arrangement. To conclude, I now follow up the critique of the unitary executive framework with a brief description of an historical-institutional alternative.
Like its label indicates, the framework I propose emphasizes and integrates two key elements, the one institutional, the other historical. First, by design, the system of administration for a policy domain structures decision making and narrows the choice of alternatives, thereby simultaneously assisting and constraining the president--or, in other words, diminishing unity in the executive. The Treasury secretary, for example, both assisted and constrained Thomas Jefferson. Likewise, a number of public finance principals assisted and constrained Barack Obama. Second, the system of administration for a policy domain changes substantially from time to time. Where, for example, the Treasury once stood alone following the demise of the Bank of the United States in the 1830s, other public finance institutions with overlapping jurisdictions were established in the twentieth century: the Federal Reserve in 1913, the Bureau of the Budget in 1921, the
Council of Economic Advisers in 1946, the Congressional Budget Office in 1974, and the National Economic Council in 1993. Accounting for further variation, the established administrative institutions themselves are transformed on occasion. After its creation in 1913, for example, the governing objective of the Federal Reserve changed under the Banking Act of 1935, the Employment Act of 1946, and the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978.
Put together, these two key elements form the foundation of the proposed historical-institutional framework and central argument: Even if unity in the executive is always imperfect, significant variation can be observed over time in the relationship between the president and the system of administration. In other words, unity is contingent and a matter of degree. It is at its maximum when and to the extent that the president restructures the system of administration in order to implement his preferred policies. Conversely, it is at its low ebb when and to the extent that the president accepts the system that is already in place and oriented towards achieving some objective. Translated into terms preferred by theories premised on a unitary executive framework, I contend that when the president restructures the established collective-action and informational arrangement, it strengthens his first-mover advantage in the policy domain. Alternatively, his first-mover advantage is often obstructed or compromised when he relies on the established collective-action and informational arrangement.
What I have presented here is only a basic description of an alternative framework. It remains to provide: (1) a complete theory of variation in presidential control or unity in the executive--I use the two terms interchangeably, (2) a quantitative analysis identifying the turning points in public finance administration and confirming that administration is a stronger indicator of public finance policy on average than are the conventional political variables, and (3) detailed case studies showing how presidential control varies from one incumbent to the next both within and across historical eras. That work is forthcoming.
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(1.) For other studies that stress the president's first-mover advantage, see Moe and Howell (1999, 138); Howell (2003, 27); Lewis (2003, 73); Canes-Wrone (2006, 24); Howell and Pevehouse (2007, 7); Beckman (2010, 30); Zeisberg (2013, 26); Lewis and Moe (2014, 383-4).
(2.) For other studies that stress the president's collective-action advantage, see Moe and Howell (1999, 149); Mayer (2001, 30, 37, 143 and 152); Howell and Pevehouse (2007, 8-9); Posner and Vermeule (2010,26-7).
(3.) For other studies that stress the president's informational advantage, see Moe and Howell (1999, 138); Mayer (2001, 220); Howell (2003, 101-2); Lewis (2003, 73); Howell and Pevehouse (2007, 7); Wood (2007, 15); Posner and Vermeule (2010,81-2); Zeisberg (2013, 26); Thorpe (2014, 22 and 171).
(4.) On presidents creating new political landscapes and affecting their successors, see Skowronek (1993; 2008). On "long-lasting" policy changes, "new issue regimes" or "program regimes," and "substantial changes" in electoral coalitions, see Mayhew (2008). And for a critique of theoretical frameworks that overlook "durable victories" in policy and the "reconfiguration of governance," see Hacker and Pierson (2014).
(5.) On institutional change and stability, see North (1990); Pierson (2004); Mahoney and Thelen (2010).
(6.) For examples of presidents struggling to control the executive branch, see Neustadt (1960). And for an account of the "less-than-perfect" relationship between executive orders and presidential preferences, see Rudalevige (2012).
(7.) On the difference between the classic view and more expansive views, see Calabresi and Yoo (2008, 20-1). And for a developmental perspective on the unitary executive theory, see Skowronek (2009).
(8.) Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, February 15, 1791, in Jefferson (1905).
(9.) Albert Gallatin to Thomas Jefferson, June 18, 1802, in Gallatin (1879).
(10.) Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, October 7, 1802, in Jefferson (1905).
(11.) Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, July 12, 1803, in (ibid.).
(12.) Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, December 13, 1803, in (ibid.).
(13.) Underscoring the effectiveness of the administrative constraint, Jefferson continued to believe the Bank was unconstitutional even after he expanded its operations. See Holds-worth (1910, 72 note b).
(14.) The twenty-year charter for the original Bank of the United States expired in 1811 after the Republican-controlled government failed to renew it. The second Bank was established in 1816, following the War of 1812, and it also had a twenty-year charter. For a comparison of the charters, see Dewey (1910, 163-75).
(15.) Andrew Jackson, "Veto Message [of the Reauthorization of the Bank of the United States]," July 10, 1832, The American Presidency Project, ed. Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley.
(16.) On differences in the presidency and administration across the Founding and Jackson eras, see White (1965a, 29-44, 60-76; 1965b, 20-49, 67-84).
(17.) Thomas Jefferson to P.S. Dupont de Nemours, January 18, 1802, in Jefferson (1905, emphasis added).
(18.) For an argument that presidents are more likely to act unilaterally when party control of the government is unified, see Howell (2003, 69-75).
(19.) "The First Presidential Debate Transcript," New York Times, 26 September 2008.
(20.) On the likely flawed comparison to the Clinton administration, see Eichengreen (2015, 329-32).
(21.) At minimum, Romer thought that a $1.2 trillion proposal should have been in the memo. See Grunwald (2012, 116-7). Moreover, even Peter Orszag, who opposed higher spending, agreed that a larger proposal should have been included. See Scheiber (2012, 41-2).
(22.) The point here is not to suggest that the stimulus actually failed but rather that the Romer-Bernstein memo provided Republicans with an effective political argument. On the effect of the stimulus, see Council of Economic Advisers (2014).
(23.) Bob Woodward, "Obama's Sequester Deal-Changer," Washington Post, 22 February 2013.
(24.) "Transcript of the Third Presidential Debate," New York Times, 22 October 2012. On the Obama administration's responsibility for proposing the sequester, see Woodward (2012, 326-27, 339-41) and Woodward, "Obama's Sequester Deal-Changer," Washington Post, 22 February 2013.
(25.) "President Obama's News Conference on the Sequester and Funding Cuts (Transcript)," Washington Post, 1 March 2013.
(26.) Summers resigned as director of the National Economic Council in 2010. This quote is included to offer general support for Boehner's account of the situation, not to describe Summers' view of how the president handled the budget negotiation process in particular.
(27.) W. J. Hennigan and Lisa Mascaro, "Obama Bid to End 'Sequestration' Spending Limits Divides Republicans," Los Angeles Times, 29 January 2015.
Patrick R. O'Brien is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Yale University and a recipient of the 2016-17 Miller Center National Fellowship. AUTHOR'S NOTE: I thank Stephen Skowronek and Richard Ellis for helpful feedback on this article. I also thank David Mayhew, Jacob Hacker, Andrew Rudalevige, William Howell, and Bruce Miroff for feedback on the larger project.
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|Author:||O'Brien, Patrick R.|
|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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