The Last One Hundred Days
Howell, William G., Mayer, Kenneth R., Presidential Studies Quarterly
A lame duck President might look at his authority to govern in the transition period as if it were a large balloon with a slow leak.... The balloon is ineluctably shrinking with each passing week.... By the end of the year, he will have lost the attention of the permanent government and can accomplish very little.
--James Pfiffner (1996, 5)
As his "long goodbye" in 2000-2001, Clinton was "a whirling dervish of a President who appointed judges, signed treaties, gave campaign-style speeches, issued scads of executive orders, rescinded ethics regulations he had penned in his first term, raised political money, gave dozens of interviews, granted 234 pardons and clemencies, fired an enemy from her government job, negotiated his own plea-bargain agreement, cast aspersions on his successor, installed a crony as head of the Democratic Party, and gave an entire series of farewell addresses in which he essentially said he wasn't leaving at all."
--Carl Cannon (2001, 274)
A curious thing happens during the last one hundred days of a presidential administration: political uncertainty shifts to political certitude. The president knows exactly who will succeed him--his policy positions, his legislative priorities, and the level of partisan support he will enjoy within the new Congress. And if the sitting president (or his party) lost the election, he has every reason to hurry through last-minute public policies, doing whatever possible to tie his successor's hands.
Can he succeed? If James Pfiffner's quote above is any indication, prospects are dim. Defeated at the polls in November and guaranteed political retirement in January, an outgoing president has little ground upon which to advocate for his (someday her) policy agenda. During his final months in office, his public prestige and professional reputation--the ingredients of persuasion, and the purported foundations of presidential power--run empty. Members of Congress have little cause to do a defeated president's bidding; and without them, presidents cannot hope to accomplish anything of consequence. As such, outgoing presidents have little choice but to recognize their plight, gather their belongings, and close the door on their administration.
In our estimation, this misconstrues things. By ignoring important policy options outside of the legislative process, scholars have exaggerated the frailty of outgoing presidents and underestimated the influence they continue to wield. Presidential power does not reduce to bargaining, negotiating, and convincing members of Congress to do things that the president cannot accomplish on his own. Presidents can (and regularly do) act alone, setting public policy without having to rally Congress's attention, nor even its support (Cooper 2002; Howell 2003; Mayer 2001). With executive orders, proclamations, executive agreements, national security directives, and memoranda, presidents have ample resources to effectuate policy changes that stand little chance of overcoming the collective action problems and multiple veto points that plague the legislative process. And having "lost the attention of the permanent government," outgoing presidents have every reason to strike out on their own, set new policy, and leave it to the incoming administration to try and steer an alternative course.
Examples of last-minute presidential actions abound. It was President John Adams's "Midnight" appointments, which Jefferson refused to honor, that prompted the landmark Marbury v. Madison Supreme Court decision. Grover Cleveland created a twenty-one-million-acre forest reserve to prevent logging, an act that led to an unsuccessful impeachment attempt and the passage of legislation annulling the action. Then, in response to the congressional uprising, "Cleveland issued a pocket veto and left office" (Combs 2001, 331). Jimmy Carter negotiated for the release of Americans held hostage in Tehran, implementing an agreement on his last day in office with ten separate executive orders, many of which sharply restricted the rights of private parties to sue the Iranian government for expropriation of their property. It was, according to Harold Hongju Koh, "One of the most dramatic exercises of presidential power in foreign affairs in peacetime United States history" (Koh 1990, 122). In late December 1992, George Bush pardoned six Reagan administration officials who were involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, a step that ended Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh's criminal investigation. "[In] a single stroke, Mr. Bush swept away one conviction, three guilty pleas, and two pending cases, virtually decapitating what was left of Mr. Walsh's effort, which began in 1986" (Johnston 1992). (1) And as Carl Cannon's quote at the beginning of this paper indicates, during his final days in office Clinton "issued scads of executive orders" on issues ranging from protecting the Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve to prohibiting the importation of rough cut diamonds from Sierra Leone to curbing tobacco use both domestically and abroad.
In this article, we document the flurry of activity that regularly occurs during the ultimate weeks of a defeated president's administration, and the lasting impact this can have on his successor's ability to govern. We proceed as follows. First, we review the literature on presidential transitions and recount the conventional understanding of presidential power. We then introduce the president's powers of unilateral action and specify why presidents have such strong incentives to exercise them during the waning hours of their administrations. Analyzing trends in regulatory activity, we identify spikes that coincide with presidential transitions. Finally, through a series of case studies, we illustrate how last-minute directives issued by presidents can tie the hands of their successors, occasionally forcing them to choose between accepting objectionable policies as law or paying a steep political price for trying to change them.
Transitioning In and Out of Government
There is, at present, a sizable literature on presidential transitions (Brauer 1986; Burke 2000; Henry 1960; Jones 1998; Kumar and Sullivan 2003; Pfiffner 1996). Without exception, this work places incoming presidents (aides and advisers brought in tow) front and center. The literature really is about the challenges of moving from a campaign to a governing stance, of transforming former governors, senators, and vice presidents into presidents, of preparing November victors for the awesome responsibilities and powers that await them in January. It spells out the issues of staffing, management, agenda setting, and policy formulation that inevitably confront presidents-elect. It catalogs the personal and professional tensions--between policy and political advisers, between campaign workers and governing staffers, between Washington insiders and loyal aides from the president-elect's home state--that regularly infect transitions. Much of this literature, further, has a strong prescriptive element. It offers up advice to newly elected presidents--delineate clearly lines of authority; delegate wisely; heed the importance of management; promote loyalty, though not at the expense of free and open dialogue--in the hopes that they will avoid the mistakes of past transitions. This literature, in short, details how former presidential candidates steady their sights on the presidency itself, lay the groundwork for governance, and, if they are lucky, generate the momentum needed for change.
To the extent that they receive attention in the transitions literature, outgoing presidents stand as little more than informational resources for incoming administrations. In his presidential memos, for instance, Richard Neustadt recommends that newly elected presidents actively (though with due skepticism) seek the advice of sitting secretaries and undersecretaries, advisers, and staffers. Lamenting how little these officials are used, and how quickly they are forgotten, Neustadt notes that "transitions offer opportunities to extract a whole governmental generation's lore at once. But those who need it most and could best use it, the incomers, rarely think of such things" (Jones 2002, 167).
Instead, outgoing presidents rapidly fall out of favor and fade away. In his authoritative book on presidential transitions, James Pfiffner argues that,
When control of the presidency changes parties, the lame-duck administration has eleven weeks to tidy up its affairs and prepare the way for the new administration. Immediately after the election power begins to shift noticeably. Senior career executives begin to distance themselves from their bosses.... The bureaucratic machine begins to slip into neutral gear because its present leaders cannot guarantee any commitments beyond January 20. (1996, 5-6)
Pfiffner's perspective is widely shared. Writes Carl Brauer, during presidential transitions "formal authority continues to reside in the occupant of the White House, [but] his political power is small compared to that of his successor. The focus of attention is on the person about to become President, not on the person about to vacate the office" (1986, xiv). Laurin Henry characterizes outgoing presidents as "caretakers" who enjoy three final months to close up shop and ease into retirement (1960, 3). The sitting president's policy agenda, his independent interests and initiatives, along with the powers he wielded during the prior three and three-quarter years, quickly dissipate in the waning months of his administration, as attention rightfully shifts to the newly elected president and the spectacle of a new government being formed.
A fair amount of quantitative work on second-term presidents substantiates the impression that presidential influence begins to decline the moment that reelection prospects foreclose. For instance, second-term presidents have an especially difficult time using ceremonial activities (major speeches, foreign and domestic travel) to harness public support, underscoring "what appears to be a lessening of effort" on their part (Brace and Hinckley 1993, 395). This effort, apparently, extends into the legislative arena. Charles Jones, for instance, studied the legislative histories of twenty-one landmark laws initiated by presidents between 1947 and 1990 (1994). Second-term presidents launched only three of these laws; presidents with longer electoral horizons initiated the remaining eighteen.
Presidential struggles, however, are not confined to second terms. Indeed, all presidents face a common dilemma. As Paul Light observes, opportunities to advance an agenda peak early, typically during an administration's first hundred days--precisely when presidents are least organized and least knowledgeable about the workings of the federal government. While expertise may grow over time, presidential influence wanes. Midterm losses in Congress, the crowding of legislative calendars, and depleted "energy and creative stamina" all conspire against the president, locking him in a "cycle of decreasing influence" (Light 1994, 41).
Over the course of presidential administrations, most trajectories point downward. Public approval ratings steadily (though not monotonically) decline (Mueller 1973; Stimson 1976); …
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Publication information: Article title: The Last One Hundred Days. Contributors: Howell, William G. - Author, Mayer, Kenneth R. - Author. Journal title: Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume: 35. Issue: 3 Publication date: September 2005. Page number: 533+. © 1999 Center for the Study of the Presidency. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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