The Presidency and Public Policy
The Four Arenas of Presidential Power
By Robert J. Spitzer
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 1982 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Studying the Presidency
We know almost everything about Presidents ... but far too little about the Presidency. —James MacGregor Burns
The presidency of the United States has sometimes been described as the most powerful office in the free world, if not on earth, and at other times the president has been likened to the wretched Sisyphus, who was condemned forever to roll a stone up a hill in Hades, only to watch it roll down again as soon as he neared the top. What is odd about these two characterizations is that they exist simultaneously, even in harmony, as descriptions of the American presidency. This peculiar conjunction of power and impotence reflects both the complex reality and the general lack of understanding of the presidency. If the best wisdom that can be offered of a political institution is that it both possesses and lacks the same set of characteristics, then we are sorely lacking in wisdom. Such an acknowledgment assumes even more startling dimensions when the presidency is described as "the most important political institution in American life." Students of the presidency are just now coming to grips with the conceptual, methodological, and substantive gaps in our understanding. While the literature on the presidency is voluminous (a recently published annotated bibliography of works on the presidency cites over twenty-five hundred entries published since the New Deal era), it is notably deficient in "basic empirical research" and "systematic scholarly study." Anthony King has delivered this severe indictment:
To read most general studies of the United States presidency ... is to feel that one is reading not a number of different books but essentially the same book over and over again. The same sources are cited; the same points are made; even the same quotations ("bully pulpit," etc.) appear again and again. In addition, the existing literature is mainly descriptive and atheoretical: general hypotheses are almost never tested. Largely for this reason, a subject that might be thought to bristle with difficulties has so far aroused remarkably little scholarly—as distinct from purely political—controversy, about either methodology or substantive research findings.
There are several reasons or, perhaps more properly, excuses that attempt to explain this lacuna in the study of the presidency. First, access to information about presidents is sometimes limited for reasons of national security. Much presidential activity involves matters of defense and international affairs. The military and political sensitivity of some material allows the use of the national-security justification for maintaining secrecy. Beyond that, many other presidential dealings are conducted in secret and are revealed only at the discretion of the president himself. Such disclosures are seldom made voluntarily, unless disclosure works to the president's advantage. While the published accounts of former presidential aides and confidants abound, such works have a reputation for being selective and self-serving. The same has been said of presidential memoirs as well. As a former presidential aide dryly observed, "The inaccuracy of most Washington diaries is surpassed only by the immodesty of their authors."
Second, few numerical indicators can be readily utilized. There are no roll calls, judicial votes, or survey research available. Indeed, the existence of masses of readily available data from the Institute for Social Research, the National Opinion Research Center, the Gallup, Harris, and Roper organizations, and the like indicate how the existence of readily available data can spawn research, as these data have for the study of voting, attitudes, and mass behavior. In the case of studying the president, it is not clear what the level or unit of analysis should be, nor how hypotheses might be operationalized and tested.
Third, the structure and evolution of the institution of the presidency itself is viewed as largely idiosyncratic and accidental. Many have noted, for example, how the assassinations of William McKinley, Lincoln, and Kennedy dramatize, especially to those who engage in "what if ..." history, the important role of unanticipated events in shaping the presidency. Clinton Rossiter emphasizes the role of chance in the formation of the presidential institution. The ambiguous nature of article two of the Constitution and the uncertainty surrounding it at the Constitutional Convention, as compared with article one, left open to interpretation many of the prerogatives and initiatives that were later to become accepted norms.
A fourth factor contributing to the absence of systematic research is the simple fact that the institution of the presidency is tied to the man occupying the Oval Office. On that basis, obvious difficulties attend any attempt to generalize from thirty-nine cases over a two-hundred-year period. While there is clearly a great deal of continuity in terms of both internal and external forces and structures, the standard way of "cutting up" the presidency analytically is by the successive administrations of each president. One assumes that each man leaves his own unique mark on the office. Each president's style, temperament, personality, skill, and "charisma" all contribute to the perceptions of individuality by which each administration is viewed, despite continuities in institutional and environmental forces.
Another factor that surely inhibits the application of social-scientific rigor is the fact that many, if not most, of the important scholarly writers on the presidency have themselves been intimately bound up not just in a presidential administration, but with the chief executive himself. Such authors as James MacGregor Burns, Stephen Hess, Emmet J. Hughes, Richard Neustadt, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Rexford Tugwell have all had personal ties to one or more presidents. Personal experience is certainly important in obtaining a fuller understanding of how the presidency operates, but such experiences surely have had an effect on how presidents and their administrations are evaluated and compared. Few would not be awed by the majesty of the office and the presence of the chief executive. It is a recurrent problem among journalists covering the White House. To be personally tied to a president is undoubtedly useful for obtaining certain kinds of detailed information about presidents, but it also creates a situation of observer-as-participant, which strikes directly at the ideals of dispassionate third-person analysis that lie at the heart of social-science research. Perhaps this factor more than any other is responsible for what has been identified by political scientists as "the Presidential worship that has pervaded our professional literature."
Finally, there is often more than a little ambiguity over exactly what is being studied. Does a reference made to "the presidency" point only to the man in the Oval Office, or does it include the White House Office as well? What about the Executive Office, the cabinet, and the departments under each cabinet head? What about the rest of the bureaucracy? These are primarily organizational and definitional questions, which should pose no great obstacle. But terms such as the president, the presidency and the executive branch have been used interchangeably.
Taken together, these difficulties do present an obstacle; but obstacles exist to be overcome. One should not lose sight of the fact that the presidency is a political institution founded in a long constitutional, legal, and political tradition. Consequently, the president and his minions behave in certain systematic, even predictable ways in the context of that institution. In this investigation, similarities and parallelisms existing across administrations will be sought out and analyzed by turning traditional frameworks on their heads. The argument I will advance is that policy determines presidential behavior.
The Policy Approach
The president sits at the center of government. From that vantage he surveys the entire governmental apparatus. More than that, however, he is actively involved in formulating and implementing the product of that apparatus—policies. Thus it is that presidents are defined and perceived in terms of the policies they choose to identify themselves with. Given the intimate relation between a president and his policies, the fundamental argument being made here is that the type of policy with which the president deals determines the nature and effects of his political response and therefore his ultimate success. The precise policy types and their differing effects will be discussed in the next chapter. While the logic of this argument can apply to all phases of presidential policy making, the analysis here will be confined to domestic-policy proposals made by the president to the Congress. The importance of this policy interaction for the president, the Congress, and the country is dramatized almost daily in news headlines emanating from Washington.
The analysis of policies with respect to the presidency is not new. Many important case studies have focused on presidential policy making and its effects. However, policy has generally been thought of as a dependent variable, that is, the product of political forces. Further, most studies have focused on a few critical cases. The analysis here will incorporate an examination of the full range of legislative policy proposals emanating from the White House. More important, the use of a policy typology will allow for more than simple description. The relationship between what has been done and what will be done here will be examined more fully in the next section.
The focus on presidential policy making is based on the assumption that the president operates and can be understood as a policy maker with conscious and relatively consistent policy interests and goals. Stated another way, the presumption is that the president pursues policy making as a purposive activity, and that it is important to examine and understand his policy proposals and enactments because of what they reveal about the behavior of the president and his success in dealing with the political environment and because the nature of policies themselves has an independent effect on political processes and outcomes. The goal of the president's purposive activity is to realize the enactment of his policy program.
The analysis that composes the body of this project incorporates the domestic legislative program of presidents from 1954 to 1974. The focus is on that subset of legislative activity with which the president is most centrally concerned—his annual legislative program. With this subuniverse of bills the president probably maximizes his efforts and expenditures of resources. I will argue that the president's political response to Congress, and therefore the fate of these bills, varies with the nature of the policies themselves. And in his pursuit of policy making via the legislative route, the president goes a long way toward prescribing the outcome by committing himself to certain types of policies over others.
The President's Policy Proposals
An examination of the universe of legislative proposals that compose the annual congressional agenda reveals that there are four sources from which legislation is offered. Two of them, the chief executive (in conjunction with the White House Office) and the bureaucracy, are executive. A third source is congressmen themselves, and a fourth is interest groups. In an earlier age, political parties might have constituted a fifth source. But in today's political setting, the president and individual congressmen are themselves the important party leaders.
Within the executive, all proposed legislation passes through the Office of Management and Budget in order that it may be subjected to central clearance. The purpose of clearance is to insure that "the hundreds of legislative proposals generated by federal departments, bureaus, and independent agencies are coordinated and reviewed to assess their acceptability as component parts of the presidential program." According to a recent estimate, the OMB handles approximately sixteen thousand proposals annually. About 80 to 90 percent of those proposals are generated by the bureaucracy. But much of the other 10 to 20 percent constitutes legislation adopted by the president and his aides in the White House Office as "The President's Program." This distinctive function performed by the president was formally and permanently established by Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 and was first identified as such by Richard Neustadt. His description of the process, as valid today as then, bears repeating:
Throughout [the administration's proposals], one theme was emphasized: here was a comprehensive and coordinated inventory of the nation's current legislative needs, reflecting the President's own judgements, choices, and priorities in every major area of Federal action; in short, his "legislative program," an entity distinctive and defined, its coverage and its omissions, both, delimiting his stand across the board. And—quite possibly—this stand was being taken, this program volunteered in order to give Congress an agenda, Republicans a platform, and voters a yardstick in 1954.
Thus, one year after his inaugural, Eisenhower espoused a sweeping concept of the President's initiative in legislation and an elaborate mechanism for its public expression.
In practical terms, the president's legislative program sets forth the main issues for each congressional session and in doing so, establishes general parameters for what will and will not be acceptable to the president—specifically, where the veto might be employed. Presidential identification with major bills is the important boost a piece of legislation can receive, as the Area Redevelopment Act illustrates. Throughout the 1950s Senator Paul Douglas repeatedly proposed a redevelopment act, only to be thwarted at various points in the legislative process. During the 1960 presidential campaign, John Kennedy promised a redevelopment act during a speech in West Virginia. In 1961 he engineered the bill's passage with the cooperation of Douglas. While it is clear that Douglas sired the initial concept, introducing the bill as a part of the president's program led to its passage. So it is that a "bill that originally emerges in the Congress may have absolutely no chance of passing until adopted or sometimes changed by the President."
However, in considering the president's program as submitted to Congress, it is important to clarify the question of whether in fact his program can be interpreted as consistent with his policy preferences (as his purposive behavior would indicate). Three objections to this view present themselves at once; I will label them expedience, prior influence, and end product.
Expedience. It could be argued that the president's program, as submitted to Congress, primarily if not entirely reflects the president's perception of what Congress is likely to pass. While the validity of this assertion is not entirely denied, there are several points that militate against this argument. First, as a practical matter the legislative process affords a great deal of leeway. A bill introduced in a form that is perceived as unacceptable to a majority can be manipulated without seriously altering the basic content of the bill. The ultimate form of a bill, especially a controversial one, will often not be known until the final vote. Yet manipulation of the form of the bill, while satisfying some congressmen, may not alter the basic bill. The debate over the Panama Canal Treaty provides a good example. If the amount of initial congressional outcry over the treaty was any indication, the treaty would have stood no chance of passage; yet it was ultimately ratified by the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate, with several votes held in reserve (a few senators would have voted with Carter if he had needed the extra votes for ratification). The final form of the treaty was manipulated by the introduction of a series of amendments and reservations; those changes served primarily to placate constituents as well as generalized opposition, which was considered to be widespread.
Second, it is argued (in contrast to the first objection) that the president is at least as concerned with what he proposes, for electoral and policy reasons, as he is with whether the proposal passes. Naturally, the passage of a proposed piece of legislation is important to the president's interests as he perceives them, and he is surely prepared to compromise in order to obtain passage. However, it is just as true that a president often finds it desirable to rail against a "do-nothing" Congress rather than passively to accept whatever proposals are laid before him by Congress.
Finally, it is clear that there are times when the president looks for a legislative "win" strictly for its own sake. News reports in the late summer of 1978 indicated that President Carter was searching for some sort of legislative victory to bolster his sagging image. But as the Carter example illustrates, the president's selection of an issue is invariably made among the proposals composing his own established legislative agenda. In the case of Carter, two frequently mentioned issues were the test of strength on his veto of a $38 billion defense appropriation that included $2 billion for a Nimitz-class nuclear carrier he did not want (the House sustained the veto), and the passage of part or all of the administration's energy program. (Continues...)
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