Price forum examines president’s executive role, capacity in shaping policy

Photo credit: USC Price faculty Kathleen Doherty and William Resh (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan) More photos available on Flickr »

By Matthew Kredell

USC Price School of Public Policy Dean Jack H. Knott led a recent forum, featuring public administration scholars Kathleen Doherty and William Resh, that addressed the role and ways the U.S. President can shape national policy.

The event was part of the Price School’s ongoing post-election conversation series, which explore the policy implications of the new administration and Congress.

Knott noted that the role of the presidency has changed over time, becoming more centralized and powerful. The founding fathers established checks and balances in the system to prevent the government from doing things the broad public might want – such as suppressing minorities – but some of these features of the democratic system are coming under stress and facing challenges.

“I thought it would be good to focus on this as a separate topic from the substantive policies because you’ve heard a lot about this in the news media,” Knott told the audience. “It’s something people are worried about, and something I think we need to have a more informed discussion about. I’m very pleased to have two of our faculty to start us off in this conversation.”

Presidential powers

Assistant professors Kathleen Doherty and William Resh, whose research areas focus on American political institutions and executive politics, provided their expertise to the open conversation with Price students and faculty.

“Recent actions by the Trump presidency certainly raise some questions about the nature and extent to which the President can shape policy,” Doherty said. “Presidents have this array of tools at their disposal to affect national policy, but they’re also obviously going to be constrained by other institutional actors. I think the most striking aspect of the President’s Constitutional authority is how vague much of it is, how ambiguous.”

Doherty listed three ways the President can influence policies: bargaining power in the legislature, executive power and the power of foreign policy. Presidents influence the legislature through their veto power, proposing the federal budget, and by using their bully pulpit to rally attention.

With Trump’s series of executive orders in his first weeks in office, Doherty observed that it is normal for presidents to engage in unilateral action, particularly when dealing with a unified Congress because their co-partisans are less likely to protest.

Setting the agenda

With the President and Congress aligned, Resh stated that he expected Trump would experience early legislative success in his honeymoon period, particularly in the areas where his administration’s agenda aligns with the Republicans in Congress. For certain issues that are not on the Republican agenda, such as committing $1 trillion to infrastructure, he suggested Republican lawmakers will put it off until Trump’s political capital wanes and the figure can be substantially lowered.

Resh suggested that Trump might not see the results he expects with regard to the implementation of his executive orders by federal agencies, where his 4,000 appointees will oversee a civilian workforce of 2.6 million.

“As the President looks to bolster his legacy through the role of chief executive of the United States federal bureaucracy, there are some indications – both rhetorically and in his heavy reliance in these unilateral tools of the Presidency – that he expects his preferences will be self-executing and is going to bring to heel many of the agencies, especially those that don’t align with his agenda,” Resh said. “But an important question is to what extent this is really possible.”