Presidential Leadership and Administrative Coordination: Examining the Theory of a Unified Executive

By West, William F. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Presidential Leadership and Administrative Coordination: Examining the Theory of a Unified Executive


West, William F., Presidential Studies Quarterly


As is often noted, the delegation of policy-making authority to the bureaucracy presents important doctrinal and constitutional issues for American government. What values should guide the administrative process and what institutional controls are appropriate for advancing those values?

Particularly influential in this debate is the argument that the centralization of authority in the presidency is desirable as a way of rationalizing public administration. Thus, a unified executive has taken its place alongside presidential leadership in the legislative process as a prescribed response to the need for effective governance. To claim that everyone endorses this view would be a considerable exaggeration. At least since the New Deal, however, it has enjoyed majority support among students of political science, public administration, and administrative law as an antidote to the pathologies associated with the growth of a large and fragmented bureaucracy and with the decentralization of political power in American government more generally. As such, it has provided a rationale for the creation and empowerment of the Executive Office as an institutional resource for presidential management. One also suspects that the courts' endorsement of a unified executive in recent decades has been influenced by a preponderance of scholarly opinion that it promotes sound policy results.

The theory that equates presidential influence with cohesiveness and coordination across agencies and programs is certainly popular enough to merit an evaluation of the assumptions about institutional motives and behavior that sustain it. With this objective in mind, the following study begins with a description and then a critique of the argument for a unified executive. It then evaluates this argument through an examination of regulatory review. Far from being the only tool for presidential management of the bureaucracy, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) clearance of agency rules is nevertheless the furthest extension to date of centralized executive influence over administrative policy making. Arguably, it speaks to the incentives that link the presidency to the exercise of delegated authority more directly than any other institutional development. An analysis of its effects is based on previous studies, on OMB data, and on interviews with officials who have been closely involved in the review process.

As an ad hoc, reactive oversight technique, regulatory review has had two, quite different effects: to some extent it has been a top-down mechanism for promoting consistent presidential goals within particular areas and to some extent it has been a bottom-up mechanism for resolving conflicts among agencies and programs. Although each of these management functions is salutary, centralized clearance of agency policy making has produced little if any of the systematic planning and control that advocates of a strong administrative presidency seem to claim for executive centralization. This observation is consistent with a consideration of the resources and incentives that define the president's relationship to the administrative process.

In conjunction with the absence of evidence that presidents have sought to rationalize public administration through other means, the ultimate significance of this study may lie in its relevance for prescriptive theory. Its salience may be amplified in this regard by the recent expansion of executive power through the increased use of presidential signing statements and other institutional initiatives. A number of interrelated empirical, normative, and legal questions must be addressed in attempting to allocate executive, legislative, and judicial roles within the administrative process. If the constitutional equation is a complex one, however, the motives and effects of presidential management are certainly among its key elements.

The Prescriptive Theory of a Unified Executive

Presidential control over the bureaucracy was originally framed in instrumental terms. …

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