Staffing Alone: Unilateral Action and the Politicization of the Executive Office of the President, 1988-2004

By Lewis, David E. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2005 | Go to article overview
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Staffing Alone: Unilateral Action and the Politicization of the Executive Office of the President, 1988-2004


Lewis, David E., Presidential Studies Quarterly


There is a burgeoning literature on unilateral action (see, e.g., Cooper 2002; Howell 2003; Mayer 2001). This literature frequently assumes that once orders are written, they are implemented without difficulty. As students of the policy process know, however, implementation post-enactment can be the key to determining whether policies succeed or fail (Pressman and Wildavsky 1974). There is often a significant slippage between what presidents or Congress intended and actual policy outcomes. Slippage can occur for a variety of reasons including resource constraints, difficulty observing outcomes, the complexity of joint action, and task difficulty. Importantly, bureaucratic resistance in implementation can also influence implementation.

In trying to ensure successful implementation of policy objectives, unilateral action once again comes into play. Presidents have significant unilateral influence over whether the managers who implement policies are chosen by the president or filled by the merit system. Presidential choices about whether federal managers will be appointees or career civil servants not only have significant consequences for the policy content of the measures enacted, but also the competence with which they are implemented (Gilmour and Lewis, forthcoming; Heclo 1975, 1977).

Presidents are frequently criticized for "politicizing" some part of the institutional presidency, from the national security bureaucracy to the budgetary process to environmental reports. (1) Implicit in these criticisms is the claim that presidential attempts to secure ideological fealty fundamentally damage the target of their attention. The National Security Council (NSC) staff fall victim to groupthink, the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) economic forecasts become less reliable, or Council on Environmental Quality reports are widely perceived as biased or vacuous. In many cases, the harm to agency neutrality and competence hurts not only the agency but also seemingly the president himself. Given the potential harm to the agency and the president, when is it in the president's interest to politicize agencies in the institutional presidency? This is an important topic given that we cannot understand the modern presidency apart from the institutional structures that have grown up around the persons who fill the office. We cannot understand national security policy without an understanding of the NSC and its staff. We cannot understand the president's role in the budgetary process or environmental policy without an understanding of his relationship with the Office of Management and Budget and the Council on Environmental Quality.

Thus, the power to determine the number of appointed positions is an understudied and important aspect of presidential unilateral power. In this article, I will describe the mechanics of how presidents alter the number of political appointees and explain why this is important for politics. I look specifically at the agencies in the Executive Office of the President (EOP). The article is divided into five sections. In the first section I describe what we know about politicization in the EOP. In the second section I describe the mechanics of how politicization occurs and in the third section I explain when presidents want to politicize. In the fourth and fifth sections of the article I examine politicization in the EOP with new data from the Office of Personnel Management and discuss what I find.

The EOP and Politicization

The EOP, created in 1939, is the structural basis of the institutional presidency. It comprises a system of presidential agencies created primarily to help the president perform congressionally delegated or constitutional responsibilities. Currently there are eleven agencies in the EOP. (2) They vary from agencies such as the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to the Council of Economic Advisers or the Office of Homeland Security. Some agencies in the EOP such as the OMB have a long history, established routines, professional expert staff, and substantial institutional memory that carries over from one administration to the next.

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Staffing Alone: Unilateral Action and the Politicization of the Executive Office of the President, 1988-2004
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