Notice & Comment

Executive Order Formation and the Duration of Policy, by Sharece Thrower

*This is the first post in a series on Andrew Rudalevige’s new book, By Executive Order: Bureaucratic Management and the Limits of Presidential Power. For other posts in the series, click here.

Andrew Rudalevige’s new book, By Executive Order: Bureaucratic Management and the Limits of Presidential Power, significantly advances our conceptual, theoretical, and empirical understanding of presidential unilateralism by demonstrating that bureaucratic actors are key players in formulating executive orders. By analyzing impressive and original archival data, Rudalevige dispels the widely-perceived notion that presidents are unitary actors who easily craft directives alone, with the mere stroke of a pen. Instead, executive orders are the product of an extensive negotiation process that, at times, involves several bureaucratic actors and incurs substantial transaction costs. Based on agency-level and policy-specific factors, his empirical chapters further probe when and why order conception is more or less centralized (chapters 4-5); why some orders take longer to develop than others (chapter 6); and why some ultimately never see the light of day (chapter 7).

In a literature mostly centered around the relationship between legislative or public actors and presidential unilateralism, By Executive Order justifiably elevates bureaucrats to the fore, laying the groundwork for several promising areas of future research. Among his many prescriptions (chapter 8), Rudalevige recommends that scholars consider how an order’s formation affects its durability. He cites my own article, which focuses on external constraints, as one of the only studies to analyze executive order longevity. Yet he urges further work be done to incorporate internal executive branch dynamics. Heeding his call, I identify three areas ripe for researching the intersection of executive order formation and policy durability.

First, presidents can amend or revoke previous executive orders by simply issuing new ones. Naturally, scholars should inquire whether formulating a policy-altering order is fundamentally different from creating new policy. Is this process White House or agency-led, and how do the factors outlined in chapter 5 (among others) apply to its centralization? Does it take more or less time to craft an order rescinding or amending previous ones, and are there differences in how and what factors might impact its timing (see chapter 6)? The answers to these questions should provide additional insights into presidents’ incentives for policy alteration – versus policy creation – through unilateralism.  

Second, by understanding these varied formulation processes, scholars can also investigate disparities in transaction costs between different avenues of policy change and their consequences. Particularly, is it more or less costly to amend an order than revoke it? Does one strategy require greater executive branch coordination, consensus, or resources? In a working paper, I consider how presidents might adjudicate between amending versus revoking an order, in part based on assumptions about their relative transaction costs. But more research is needed to fully substantiate these claims. Such inquiries would also facilitate further theory-development around the ways in which presidents select between multiple strategies of policy change.

Finally, researchers should explore how the formulation of a unilateral directive influences its overall longevity. Based on some of my research findings showing that executive orders created under interbranch conflict are more durable due to higher quality and consensus, Rudalevige speculates that longer bureaucratic deliberation and greater decentralization might also improve order longevity for similar reasons; and he finds preliminary evidence to support this intuition (pp. 207 – 208). Yet, scholars might also consider other agency-level factors that could be important for an order’s content or quality, and thus its duration. For instance, are orders less likely to be quickly revoked or amended when more agencies were consulted in its construction? Do agencies with greater expertise or resources produce orders that endure longer? Can greater policy disagreement between presidents and agencies affect an executive order’s content and duration? How might agency politicization or interest group involvement influence which orders presidents choose to alter and when? Of course, many of these relationships could depend on the political or public salience of the issue, as well as the degree or method of policy change employed.

Such questions, however, only scratch the surface of the many scholarly inquiries that will inevitably be inspired by Rudalevige’s pioneering work. By Executive Order serves as a model for how the presidency literature can move beyond simply analyzing annual counts of unilateral directives to actually understanding their process and content. His framework incorporating bureaucratic actors and transaction costs, moreover, can be applied to a variety of both theoretical and empirical studies of unilateralism. Importantly, Rudalevige’s work should only be the first step in contemplating how the bureaucracy is crucial for unilateral policymaking. Specifically, researchers should now ask: when, how, and why are unilateral directives implemented by the bureaucracy? Though such questions would certainly require another book-length treatment, the answers would substantially progress our understanding of presidential and bureaucratic incentives for initiating unilateral actions in the first place. But for now, By Executive Order undoubtedly demonstrates this line of inquiry is a worthwhile endeavor and provides an invaluable blueprint for doing so.

Sharece Thrower is Associate Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University.