Policy by Other Means: Alternative Adoption by Presidents

Policy by Other Means: Alternative Adoption by Presidents

Policy by Other Means: Alternative Adoption by Presidents

Policy by Other Means: Alternative Adoption by Presidents


Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress bears responsibility for establishing national policy through legislation, but in recent years that power has often been eclipsed by presidents adopting public policy by other means. Steven A. Shull offers a systematic study of the relative importance of four tools presidents use to create policy without going through Congress: budgeting, executive orders, executive agreements, and commitment of troops.

Using both statistical analyses of recent presidents use of alternative policy means and case studies of each tool, Shull investigates the factors that affect whether and when the chief executive becomes, in effect, the chief policy maker, budgeter, or diplomat. He examines individual, institutional, and environmental variables, as well as several controls that may influence the choice of unilateral or alternative policy actions.

Shull's quantitative analyses help to illustrate not only the trends over time in the independent actions of presidents but also the complexity of the factors that influence those trends. His data and statistical techniques point toward confirmation of some hypotheses that have been held about the exercise of presidential powers and the disproof of others. Shull demonstrates the usefulness of applying quantitative methods, informed by theory and the literature, to the study of the office.

Scholars of the presidency, of executive-legislative relations, and of public policy will gain important insight into previously under-studied aspects of presidential power from Shull's careful analysis of unilateral and other alternative policy adoption.


This book develops from several diverse interests, particularly utilizing a public policy approach to studying presidential-congressional relations (Shull 1983, 1997, 1999, 2003). Most authors view the president as setting the agenda and formulating policy while Congress is seen as modifying and adopting policy. More recently scholars have recognized that presidents also adopt policy alternatively, thereby extending their range of influence in the policymaking process. These unilateral or alternative powers are an extension of presidents’ legislative relations because they typically create policy, and even precedent, if not formal legislation. This study examines four such actions systematically, assesses their determinants, considers the frequency of usage, and compares them to one another. As such, it attempts to integrate prerogative power into broader theories of presidential power.

The title of this book might appear to be drawn from Ginsberg and Shefter (1999), who argue that elections have largely been eclipsed by Politics by Other Means. However, the focus here is not on the irrelevance of elections but on the argument that legislation by Congress often is eclipsed by presidents’ adoption of Policy by Other Means. Under such circumstances presidents often act alone, rather than engaging Congress, which seems largely to violate the constitutional principles of checks and balances. In that sense this study is more akin to Hinckley’s (1994) argument that Congress has often failed to hold presidents accountable, and it is appearing to but not actually monitoring executive branch policy actions. Hinckley believes that such monitoring has been Less Than Meets the Eye. Along with Fisher (1998), I find much presidential discretion and little congressional scrutiny of such actions as budgeting, executive orders, executive agreements, and commitment of . . .

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