Eleventh Hour: The Politics of Policy Initiatives in Presidential Transitions

By Brown, Heath | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Eleventh Hour: The Politics of Policy Initiatives in Presidential Transitions


Brown, Heath, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Eleventh Hour: The Politics of Policy Initiatives in Presidential Transitions. By David M. Shafie. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2013. 244 pp.

For those in the cottage industry of presidential transition studies, we wait patiently for years, anticipating a new case to devour. Deprived of a transition to examine in 2012, scholars should savor David Shafie's new book, Eleventh Hour: The Politics of Policy Initiatives in Presidential Transitions. Shafie takes on the oft-discussed but understudied activities of outgoing presidents. Specifically, he presents a series of environmental policy case studies related to late, "midnight," or "eleventh hour" rulemaking drawn from transitions in 1980-81 up to 2008-09. Shafie's writing is clear, and the book extends what we know about this important dimension of the presidency.

The authority to make late decisions has long been an option for presidents, but only in the last 30 years has the practice emerged as a favored tactic for Republicans, Democrats, one-term, and two-term presidents, alike. Shafie attributes this to two familiar factors: institutionalization of domestic policy by President Richard Nixon and centralization of policy making under President Ronald Reagan. As opposed to last-minute executive orders or appointments, late rulemaking is an attractive policy strategy because rules are harder to undo by Congress and the incoming administration. It is also a preferred strategy of interest group allies of the president who appreciate the lack of public scrutiny and media attention afforded during the transition period.

Despite their popularity, "midnight" regulations are routinely criticized, including by those who later use the strategy such as incoming Vice President George H. W. Bush. Bush chastised President Jimmy Carter's rulemaking during the 1980 transition. President Bush's (41) perspective is an intriguing one, as he is a participant in one role or another in all five of the transitions studied in the book. Once a critic, Bush later used the strategy during his outgoing transition in 1992-93, as did his son in 2008-09 The strengths of Shafie's book lie in these historical details and the narrative that emerges of environmental policy making since the 1970s. For example, we learn about land management policy in the Department of the Interior and in the Environmental Protection Agency through the lens of regulatory actions in the first and last few days of each administration. Policy change that was unthinkable, or at least politically untenable, for the first three and a half years in office is quickly enacted to open public lands for resource extraction or increase oil pipeline inspections, as the outgoing president celebrates a final Christmas in the White House. …

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