With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power

By Kenneth R. Mayer | Go to book overview

Four
Executive Orders and the
Institutional Presidency

THE PRESIDENCY is more than the person who occupies the office of president; it is also the set of institutions and processes that shape the behavior of the people who work within them. Viewing the office from this perspective helps shift our attention away from the characteristics of individual presidents and toward structures that remain more or less the same from one administration to the next. It also offers a way to link presidential influence to specific legal powers, since a central component of the president's formal authority is the ability to control institutions and processes. Presidents may not be able to say “do this, do that” and then sit back and wait, but they do have the ability to create, adapt, and modify institutions and organizational processes in ways that maximize the chances that policy and political outputs will match their own preferences.

In this chapter I will trace the use of executive orders as an instrument of institution building and control. Presidents, especially in the twentieth century, have used executive orders both to create and to gain control of institutions that are now crucial to presidential leadership. By creating new organizations, expanding the scope and powers of existing institutions, and unilaterally altering crucial administrative procedures, presidents have been remarkably successful in gaining control of the government's institutional apparatus, outmaneuvering Congress, and only rarely being blocked by the courts (as, for example, occurred in the Myers decision).

As I noted in chapter one, the president—despite the checks and balances of the separation of powers—retains important advantages in struggles over institutional structure and process. The president can often move first, leaving it up to the other branches to undo what has been done. Presidents, acting in this capacity as unitary decision makers, are more likely to have complete information about what, precisely, they are trying to accomplish, and can more easily conceal their true intentions from other actors. The validity of these statements—which to this point in my argument are more assumptions than anything that has been empirically proved—will become clear in the course of the case studies that follow in this and the next two chapters.

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