Notice & Comment

Unilateral Powers and Shared Executive Branch Governance: Fundamental Principles from Organization Theory, by George Krause

*This is the fourteenth 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.

“The ‘political master’ finds himself in the position of the ‘dilettante’ who stands opposite the “expert”, facing the trained official who stands within the management of administration’ (Weber 1946: 232).” 

This well-known (and oft-cited) quote attributed to German sociologist Max Weber is central to management within any organization – least not, for understanding issues of policymaking and governance within the U.S. federal executive branch. Presidents cannot function without a cadre of bureaucratic agents whose job is to execute administration. This necessity is borne out of presidents’ scarce time, expertise, and resources at their disposal. Because of this functional dependence on administrative agencies, presidents must exercise legitimate authority within the executive branch organization that is highly contingent upon the acceptance by subordinate agency personnel (e.g., Barnard 1938: 163-164; Simon 1947: 106; Presthus 1960: 86-88; see also Carpenter and Krause 2015).

The premise underlying canonical accounts of unilateral executive powers maintains that presidents have both incentives and formal tools to effectively fulfill their policy objectives through executive branch governance (e.g., Chiou and Rothenberg 2017; Howell 2003; Krause and Cohen 2000; Mayer 2001) – the presidential authority perspective (henceforth referred to as PAP). In By Executive Order: Bureaucratic Management and the Limits of Presidential Power, Professor Andrew Rudalevige challenges the core premise that unilateral executive powers can be equated with presidential authority by emphasizing the reality of shared executive authority distributed between the president and federal bureaucracy.

Implicit in PAP motivated research on unilateral executive action are the dual assumptions that (1) presidents get the policy administration that they want due to their position as chief executive officer of the U.S. federal government consistent with the ‘overhead theory of democracy’ (Redford 1968), and (2) presidential efforts utilizing both politicization and centralization strategies to reign in control over the executive branch bureaucracy are presumed to be effective in furthering the president’s policy objectives (e.g., Moe 1985; Nathan 1983). These dual assumptions underlying PAP are not only problematic for the practical reasons relating to executive branch governance carefully documented by Andrew Rudalevige in By Executive Order, but also when one considers the organization of executive branch governance compared to the legislative branch. Congress does indeed experience severe coordination problems of its own given its bicameral nature and fragmented policy jurisdictions (Schickler 2002), as well as institutional rules requiring bipartisan collaboration (Curry and Lee 2020).

Nonetheless, the scope of these challenges is offset by strong party leadership (e.g., Cox and McCubbins 1993), coupled with a smaller, and less complex organizational apparatus to navigate vis-à-vis the executive branch. According to 2020 statistics, the legislative branch employs approximately 33,673 FTE civilian employees, or a paltry 1.54% of the approximately 2.18 million civilian FTE employees (excluding The U.S. Postal Service) housed within the U.S. federal executive branch employment (Federal Workforce Statistics and Sources: OPM and OMB 2021: 6, Table 3). Unlike Congress, whose staff and support agencies constitute much fewer administrative units, and are also centrally located within the Capitol and broader D.C. region, presidents must grapple with management and control of an unwieldy and dispersed bureaucracy whose organizational units are not only fragmented by hundreds of unique administrative functions, but are also geographically dispersed as the lion share of federal agency employees work in field and regional offices scattered throughout the nation far from the reach of policy-oriented presidential appointees located in the D.C. region.  

In closing, the president’s management problems are largely governed by constraints that are dictated by numerous considerations such as policy priorities (Krause and Byers 2021), where to mitigate agent slack through the strategic placement of political appointees (e.g., Hollibaugh 2015; Lewis 2008), but to name only a couple of examples. In By Executive Order, Andrew Rudalevige offers a portrait of an organizationally constrained modern U.S. presidency that offers a striking contrast to the institutionally unconstrained ‘executive command’ view reflected by PAP (Moe 1985; Nathan 1983). PAP thus effectively equates executive authority with presidential authority (e.g., see Moe and Howell 1999: 136-138).

The challenge posed by By Executive Order to this foundational premise requires scholars to transition our scholarly understanding of executive authority from one premised on unilateral presidential action to one rooted in coordinated executive action through shared powers between the president and bureaucracy (Krause 2009, nd; Lowande 2018). This is not to say that presidents cannot achieve influence through the tools of the executive branch, and thereby, shape policy outcomes consistent with their preferred outcomes. Rather, the most important insight advanced in By Executive Order uncovers the practical realities of executive branch governance – namely, that the tools of presidential governance are effectively shared with unelected administrative officials in practice, and even when they are not, the unity of command afforded to presidents often does not produce the unity of purpose advocated by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 70.


George A. Krause is the Alumni Foundation Distinguished Professor of Public Administration at the University of Georgia.