Governors Turn Pro: Separation of Powers and the Institutionalization of the American Governorship

By Bowman, Ann O'm; Woods, Neal D. et al. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Governors Turn Pro: Separation of Powers and the Institutionalization of the American Governorship


Bowman, Ann O'm, Woods, Neal D., Stark, Milton R., Political Research Quarterly


This study examines the institutional development of governors' offices. Pooled analyses from 1983 to 2004 indicate that government growth and workload foster institutionalization, as does rivalry with the legislature. Bargaining relationships with external actors appear to have more limited impact. The authors also find that the dispersion of authority within the executive branch plays a significant role in explaining the development of institutionalized staff structures. Overall, the results indicate that separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches affects gubernatorial institutionalization but that researchers should also consider the intercurrencies that exist within the executive branch.

Keywords: state politics; state policy; executive branch; institutions

The separation of powers framework in American government-the Montesquieu-inspired work of the Framers-spells out the functions of the three branches of government.Although the U.S. Constitution erects fairly distinct boundaries to differentiate among the governmental branches, each of them connects with the others at various points, creating a constitutional Venn diagram. Indeed, the system of checks and balances established by the Constitution produces interdependent entities. As Neustadt (1960, 33) famously asserted, rather than creating a government of "separated powers," the Constitution established "a government of separated institutions sharing powers." From the beginning, these separated but inextricably connected authoritative institutions have sought to assert their dominance and expand their portion of those shared powers. They have developed distinctive identities and routinized behaviors; they are seemingly permanent and predictable. In other words, they have engaged in a process of institutionalization.

Institutionalization has taken place across branches and, given the federal structure, across levels of government. In this article, we focus on what has been called "the center of the state system" (Sanford 1967, 184): governors. Although governors' offices institutionalized substantially in the second half of the twentieth century, little is known about the causal factors driving this process. Thus, our research question is, Which factors explain the institutionalization of governors' offices? In developing our models, we turn to the literature on the American presidency and derive three explanations: (1) growth in the size and workload of government, (2) rivalry with the legislative branch, and (3) uncertainty in bargaining relationships with external actors. These explanations each have their adherents in the presidential literature, and we use the analytical leverage provided by the fifty states to test them.

The states also provide an opportunity to further develop theory, due to the unique institutional features of state governments. Not heeding Hamilton's (1788/1961, 427) warning in "Federalist No. 70" that having multiple executives "tends to conceal faults, and destroy responsibility," state constitutions set up plural executive structures. In states, power is not only separated among institutions but dispersed within the executive branch. Most governors not only contend with a host of separately elected officials; they also encounter many agency heads whose appointment (and removal) is beyond their control. Thus, a governor confrontsmyriad centrifugal forces. Our analyses suggest that this dispersion of power within the executive branch has a significant impact on the process of institutionalization.

The importance of these results lies in what they tell us about institutional growth and development in political systems organized around the separation of powers. The foundational principle of separation of powers remains vital in contemporary American government. The actual operation of a separation of powers structure raises numerous issues related to institutional accountability. …

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