Notice & Comment

Bending the Discipline, by Andrew Rudalevige

I come to Rachel Potter’s Bending the Rules as a longtime member and sometime officer of the American Political Science Association’s organized section on Presidents and Executive Politics. When I joined that group back in the late ‘90s, it was known as the Presidency Research Group — and that intervening rebranding usefully illustrates the way in which the presidency subfield has begun to take seriously questions of bureaucratic politics that were seen as part of the separate study of public administration. (Or — far worse! — relegated to the Realm of the Law Review.)

“Executive politics” at heart simply stands for the idea that the executive branch is a “they,” not an “it,” and that its constituent parts have their own preferences and resources. Thus government outcomes do not automatically or purely reflect presidential preferences. This topic was of course central to an older literature that bridged political science and public administration – think here of Graham Allison’s Models II and III from Essence of Decision detailing how both factors internal to bureaucracies and wider models of “governmental politics” might frustrate a president seeking to work her will through administrative means.  As the ghost-of-presidency-studies-past put it, the notion that “that administrative agencies comprise a single structure, ‘the’ executive branch, where presidential word is law, or ought to be” was an “illusion.”

An intervening wave of presidency research tended to make that illusion an assumption. There were good reasons for this: the complications of intra-branch politics were hard to study in a systematic way, and systematic scholarship was something the field sorely needed too. Principal-agent models became the most common representation of presidential relations to the bureaucracy – and while these did indeed assume that “agents” had some autonomy, they were largely centered on the top-down efforts of the principal to constrain it.

But the rise of the “administrative presidency” – in prospect, in theory, and in presidential behavior – made it all the more important to understand the reality of the bureaucratic behavior presidents were trying to control. That reality involved its own problems of collective action (albeit far milder than those that afflict Congress) and imposed transaction costs on any president seeking to work her will through administrative means.

George Krause memorably helped reclaim this relationship as a “two-way street,” where presidents and agencies might not always be working towards common ends, and where bottom-up behavior could change presidential perspectives. A variety of work – see Potter’s bibliography for an overview – has since emphasized the scale and impact of agency autonomy and discretion.

Potter’s new book is a key addition to this literature, adding the notion of “procedural politicking” to agencies’ repertoire as it centers on the rulemaking process. (For good measure, she rejuvenates Anthony Downs’s aged taxonomy of divergent bureaucratic “types,” though I’m not sure this is required for her argument, and Norton Long’s discussion of demographic representation via the bureaucracy.)  As Terry Moe pointed out long ago, structure guides outcomes – and, as Potter makes clear, so do strategically-maneuvered procedures (“procedures are politics,” she concludes.) Bending the Rules details how agencies may use discretion over the drafting and timing of and input into formulating regulations to make it more likely those will achieve their (and/or their favored interest groups’) preferences.

A president who wants something different, then, is going to have to work for it. (In fact maybe even through more than one layer. One point awaiting the next book, perhaps, is a fuller discussion of the internal dynamics of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), part of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OIRAians, as William West has argued, are ideologues for efficiency: their version of the “neutral competence” often associated with OMB is something that agencies try to manipulate (or evade), but with which presidents must also grapple. Their preferences, too, may veer from the efficient, cost- or otherwise.)

Finally, it is worth highlighting Potter’s laudable melding of methodologies, and her use of both qualitative and quantitative tools. She uses her own OIRA experience to build apt case studies (e.g., of an FDA menu labeling rule) while also building a database of regulatory proposals then coded for complexity, impact, and the like. Earlier I noted the determined efforts to make presidency studies more “scientific” – a new generation of scholars is not only methodologically sophisticated but descriptively savvy, re-complicating our notion of institutional dynamics by bringing more and better data into play.

All this helps bend the arc of the discipline, if not the universe – and if not towards justice, exactly, then to a better understanding of how the executive branch really works.


Andrew Rudalevige is the Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government at Bowdoin College. 

This post is part of a symposium reviewing Bending the Rules: Procedural Politicking in the Bureaucracy, a new book by Dr. Rachel A. Potter, Assistant Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. All of the posts can be read here.