Blue Ribbons, Black Boxes: Toward a Better Understanding of Presidential Commissions

By Zegart, Amy B. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2004 | Go to article overview
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Blue Ribbons, Black Boxes: Toward a Better Understanding of Presidential Commissions


Zegart, Amy B., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The delegation of political power has long been a central concern of political science. When, and why, do elected officials voluntarily give some of their own authority to others? In the past 20 years, this question has spawned a vast and sophisticated literature about the institutional presidency (Moe 1985; Hart 1995; Walcott and Hult 1995; Burke 2000), about congressional control of the bureaucracy (McCubbins and Schwartz 1984; Moe 1989; Aberbach 1990), and about the internal organization of Congress (Weingast and Marshall 1988; Krehbiel 1991; Cox and McCubbins 1993; Schickler 2001). Yet, surprisingly little has been written about a third set of institutions in the delegation universe: presidential commissions.

For most, the term "presidential commission" conjures up a particular image: a blue ribbon panel of distinguished civilians, appointed directly by the president, that defuses, deflects, or delays presidential action on some controversial domestic issue without producing much in the way of substantive policy change. The Warren Commission on Kennedy's Assassination, the Kerner Commission on the 1967 race riots, and the Lockhart Commission on Obscenity and Pornography all come to mind. Although these kinds of commissions are as old as the Republic (George Washington appointed his first in 1794 to help defuse the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania), and although they receive the bulk of attention in the popular and scholarly literature (Epstein 1966; Drew 1968; Popper 1970; Lipsky and Olson 1977; Flitner 1986), they constitute a surprisingly small share of the commissions actually used by presidents and their appointees. Most presidential commissions are not used principally to deflect blame or give the appearance of "doing something." Most are not created solely by the president, but by legislation or executive directives from presidential appointees. And many--nearly 200 in the past 20 years--have been used to examine foreign, not domestic, policy issues.

This article seeks to better understand when and why presidents choose to use commissions. It asks two central questions: (1) what functions do presidential commissions serve? and (2) what differences exist in how presidents use commissions for foreign and domestic policy issues?

In part one of the article, I examine the presidential commission literature, highlighting four current limitations. In part two, I begin to address these limitations by developing a conceptual framework of commission types. The aim is to lay the foundation for more systematic analysis of commissions across presidents and policy domains. In part three, I suggest six exploratory hypotheses about differences in how presidents use commissions in foreign and domestic policy. Part four tests these exploratory hypotheses with a data set of all ad hoc presidential commissions from 1981 to 2001 and offers some thoughts about future commission research.

The Literature

Presidential commission scholars appear to agree on one thing: the field is an under-tilled area of inquiry (Marcy 1945, 2; Dean 1969, 101; Sulzner 1971, 438; Petracca 1986, 83; Campbell 2001, xiii). As David Flitner notes, "There have been but a handful of books relating to commissions in this century" (1986, 4).

On most other issues, consensus within the literature remains elusive. While individual work offers insights about how commissions solve collective action problems (Mayer 1985), how they serve presidential interests (Wolanin 1975), or how they enable legislators to minimize agency problems when it comes to overseeing the bureaucracy (Balla and Wright 2001), the literature as a whole appears to be less than the sum of the parts.

Much of the problem stems from data limitations. As Mark Petracca observes, scholars have been able to conduct systematic analysis of commissions only since 1972, when passage of the Federal Advisory Committee Act created requirements for government disclosure of commission activities (1986, 83).

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Blue Ribbons, Black Boxes: Toward a Better Understanding of Presidential Commissions
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