Top scholars from around the country gather at USC to discuss the political economy of executive politics

by Nathan Micatka and Chrysa Perakis

In recent years, America’s two-party system has set the scene for legislative gridlock and political polarization. The executive branch has taken the decision-making initiative to alleviate congressional standstills by turning to other policymaking avenues such as executive orders, signing statements, and rulemaking. We have seen an increase in these executive branch decisions with the last few administrations through the implementation of executive orders.

On October 29th, 2019, Director of the Bedrosian Center on Governance, Jeff Jenkins, brought together top scholars from around the country to USC for The Political Economy of Executive Power Symposium. These exceptional scholars presented their research and engaged in lively discussions of these shifts in political decision-making trends and their effects on society. The distinguished scholars in attendance were: Douglas Kriner (Cornell), William Howell (Chicago), Patricia Kirkland (Princeton), Rachel Augustine Potter (Virginia), Jon Rogowski (Harvard), and Sharece Thrower (Vanderbilt). In closing, William Howell presented a draft of the book, “Reckoning: Presidents, Populism, and American Democracy,” co-written with Terry Moe (Stanford).

Doug Kriner (Cornell) began the symposium with research on “Partisan Approval and the Unilateral Presidency.” Kriner considers how public opinion serves as an informal constraint on executive action. He argues that presidents are responsive to presidential approval ratings and their support among specific adherents. Kriner finds that presidents are encouraged by strong approval ratings from independents and partisan opposition to take action.

Text Box: Sharece Thrower, VanderbiltSharece Thrower (Vanderbilt) followed with her paper,”How does the judiciary and bureaucracy influence the use of presidential signing statements to shape the interpretation and implementation of law?” In her research and using her statistical model, Thrower finds that presidents are more likely to issue a constitutional signing statement when there is ideological alignment with the Supreme Court and Congress. She also shows that when bureaucratic agencies are ideologically different, presidents are more likely to issue an agency signing statement. Together, Thrower provides substantial evidence that the dynamics between and within the branches of government are critical to presidential policymaking.

The Symposium’s second panel began with Rachel Augustine Potter (Virginia)’s paper “Providing Agency Guidance? Agency Politicization and ‘As If’ Policymaking.” Government agencies make decisions that directly affect the daily lives of citizens, yet bureaucratic rulemaking is underexplored. Potter dives deep into the bureaucracy and agency guidance documents, which are a set of policies formulated by government agencies to address specific issues. Potter argues guidance documents can be exploited by political actors in agencies politicized by presidential appointments. She shows that highly politicized agencies are more likely to rely on using guidance documents and avoid costly regulation processes.

Jon Rogowski (Harvard) followed with his paper, “Expertise and the Foundations of Public Trust in Bureaucracy” which exploring what institutional features affect the public’s support for bureaucratic agencies and the role of expertise in public confidence of the bureaucracy. Rogowski uses a survey experiment to show that the loss of expertise induces a large loss in the public’s confidence. He further argues that this effect is stronger for political independents and weaker for Republicans. Results show important findings on the role of expertise and information in influencing attitudes about the bureaucracy.

The final panel began with Will Howell (Chicago) “Rethinking the Presidential Appeals: Performance, Public Opinion, and Donald J. Trump.” Howell finds that those who were encouraged to watch a major presidential speech by President Trump were more likely to say he fulfills his presidential duties, norms, and expectations of the office he occupies. However, these presidential addresses do not change people’s policy views.

Patricia Kirkland (Princeton) ended the paper presentations with her paper “Social Class and Representation in American cities.” Kirkland questions whether and how the overrepresentation of the wealthy shapes public policy in American cities. She used data spanning 60 years with nearly 3,000 mayoral candidates from 259 cities. This data shows most mayors are white males with white-collar careers and often have prior political experience; only 4% of mayoral candidates are from the working class. Kirkland finds that electing higher class mayors has little to no effect on local fiscal policy in cities.

The Symposium closed with Will Howell (Chicago) discussing the draft of his new book co-written with Terry Moe (Stanford), Reckoning: Presidents, Populism, and American Democracy. Howell argues that the United States has entered a treacherous era of populism that threatens democracy. He suggests for American democracy to be preserved, the country needs to understand the present crisis and create institutional reforms and policies to subdue this populist threat.

The Symposium brought attention to important normative and positive concerns regarding presidential unilateral action, representation in American cities, and agency rulemaking and bureaucratic action. Their work provides important insight into American democracy and governance.