AMERICAN POLITICS & PUBLIC POLICY WORKSHOP: Patrick O’Brien (Yale), “The Unitary Executive as an Historical Variable: Presidential Control and Public Finance”
With the unitary executive framework, the executive branch becomes a unitary actor – the president – operating in relation to Congress or the Court. The policymaking process is modeled as an iterated game, starting over each year or congressional term. And the parameters of the policy realm of interest, its administrative operations, and presidential control all remain fixed, impervious to change from one period to the next. From this perspective, the president simply employs one fixed structural advantage or another – a first-mover advantage, a collective-action advantage, or an informational advantage – to shift the policy status quo and variation is accounted for with reference to peripheral institutional conditions such as party control of the presidency, congressional support, and public approval. This paper puts the unitary executive framework to a test in the domain of public finance. The results from the statistical analyses confirm that public finance administration is a stronger indicator, both statistically and substantively, meaning that administrative arrangements change significantly over time in relation to policy. This finding has serious implications for the unitary executive framework, the leading theoretical approach in the field. Rather than assume that all presidents exercise the same structural advantages relative to the other branches of government and therefore focus on peripheral institutional conditions, the empirical evidence here confirms that it is more imperative to focus on how and why these structural advantages vary from one incumbent to the next in broad historical patterns.