The Constraining Power of the Purse: Executive Discretion and Legislative Appropriations (with Sharece Thrower) - Forthcoming, Journal of Politics [Download paper]

Abstract: Discretion is fundamental to understanding inter-branch interactions in the US separation of powers system. Yet, measuring discretion is challenging. The few existing measures have difficulty capturing both delegation and constraint in a consistent way over time. In this paper, we propose a novel measure of executive discretion based on legislative appropriations to all agencies, weighted by spending limitations imposed by Congress in appropriations committee reports. We provide evidence for the validity of the measure, including a test of the  ally principle to establish construct validity. Finally, we demonstrate the wider utility of the measure by employing it to evaluate hypotheses about how political control over the bureaucracy influences congressional policymaking in the context of discretion. We show that agency design and presidential control are important factors in congressional decisions. Overall, we present a versatile measure of discretion that researchers can use to explore a variety of questions in American politics.

Legislative Constraints on Executive Unilateralism in Separation of Powers Systems (with Michael Barber and Sharece Thrower) - Forthcoming, Legislative Studies Quarterly [Download paper]

Abstract: Can legislatures effectively check unilateral executive power? One prominent and counterintuitive finding in previous work is that executives pursue unilateralism less often under divided government. While executives see greater potential policy gains through unilateral action during divided government, we argue that their likelihood of acting unilaterally depends on an opposed legislature’s ability to retaliate. When polarization is high and majorities are marginal, executives are freer to act unilaterally given the difficulties legislatures have in statutorily responding. Unilateralism is also more likely when legislatures lack non-statutory means of punishment, such as regulatory review. In the largest analysis of gubernatorial executive unilateralism to date, we use a new dataset of 24,232 executive orders in the U.S. states between 1993-2013 to evaluate this argument and find strong support for its predictions. These results provide insights into how legislative policymaking capacity can influence the functioning of separation of powers systems.

Providing Access to Confidential Research Data Through Synthesis and Verification: An Application to Data on Employees of the U.S. Federal Government  (with Andres Barrientos, Tom Balmat, Jerome Reiter, John de Figueiredo, Ashwin Machanavajjhala, Yan Chen, Charley Kneifel, and Mark Delong) - 2018, Annals of Applied Statistics [Download Paper]

Abstract: Data stewards seeking to provide access to large-scale social science data face a difficult challenge. They have to share data in ways that protect privacy and confidentiality, are informative for many analyses and purposes, and are relatively straightforward to use by data analysts. One approach suggested in the literature is that data stewards generate and release synthetic data, i.e., data simulated from statistical models, while also providing users access to a verification server that allows them to assess the quality of inferences from the synthetic data. We present an application of the synthetic data plus verification server approach to longitudinal data on employees of the U. S. federal government. As part of the application, we present a novel model for generating synthetic career trajectories, as well as strategies for generating high dimensional, longitudinal synthetic datasets. We also present novel verification algorithms for regression coefficients that satisfy differential privacy. We illustrate the integrated use of synthetic data plus verification via analysis of differentials in pay by race. The integrated system performs as intended, allowing users to explore the synthetic data for potential pay differentials and learn through verifications which findings in the synthetic data hold up and which do not. The analysis on the confidential data reveals pay differentials across races not documented in published studies.

Legislative Capacity and Executive Unilateralism (with Sharece Thrower) - 2016, American Journal of Political Science [Download paper]

Abstract: This paper develops a theory of presidential unilateralism in which both ideological divergence with Congress and congressional capacity influence the president's use of executive orders.  We argue that when Congress is less capable of constraining the executive, the president will issue more executive orders during periods of divided government.  Conversely, in periods of high congressional capacity, the president is less likely to issue executive orders when faced with an opposed Congress.  Based on an examination of institutional changes, we identify years prior to the mid-1940s as characterized by low congressional capacity and the subsequent period as characterized by high capacity.  Testing the theory between 1905 and 2010, we find strong support for these predictions and demonstrate that legislative capacity conditions the role of ideological disagreement in shaping presidential action.  Overall, this paper deepens our current understanding of the dynamics of separation of powers politics and the limits of executive power.

Related: LSE USAPP Blog, AJPS Blog

Organizational Capacity, Regulatory Review, and the Limits of Political Control (with Rachel Potter and Sharece Thrower) - 2016, Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization [Download paper] - 

Abstract: The contemporary literature on administrative politics focuses primarily on political control and largely ignores institutional capacity. In this paper, we argue that both political and organizational factors, as well as the interactions between the two, are essential in explaining executive policymaking. To test this theory, we consider the case of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), an agency mostly perceived as a political instrument of the president. Using a new dataset of more than 35,000 rules reviewed by OIRA from 1988-2013, we not only find that political factors influence the length of review but organizational factors also exhibit a significant role. Specifically, we find that review is generally longer when OIRA is understaffed and over-worked. Further, we demonstrate that low institutional capacity inhibits the president's ability to expedite priority rules. Overall, this study highlights the organizational limitations of political control.

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Legislative Capacity, Executive Power, and the Dynamics of Separation of Powers Politics (with Sharece Thrower)

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Legislative Constraints, Ideological Conflict, and the Timing of Executive Unilateralism [Download paper]

Abstract: Whether executives can use unilateral actions to circumvent legislative preferences is a central question in separated systems. Although presidents and governors certainly have incentives to engage in this behavior, US federal policymaking studies offer little evidence of it. In this paper, we argue there are particular contexts in which executives can nonetheless use unilateralism to evade legislatures. We explore how intervals between legislative sessions can create such opportunities, depending on inter-branch policy disagreement and legislatures’ special session powers. During inter-session breaks, executives issue more executive orders under divided government relative to unified, but only when legislatures lack control over special sessions. Executives facing legislatures with such powers cannot exploit these breaks. We find strong empirical support for this argument in the US states, 1993–2013. This study has implications for understanding the institutional roots of executive power, while contributing to a growing literature on the strategic timing in policymaking.

Collegial Leadership Structures, Ideological Diversity, and Policymaking in the United States [Download paper]

Abstract: How, when, and why does ideological diversity in an agency's leadership structure affect policy? Agencies led by bipartisan commissions create, implement, and enforce policies in a wide range of areas. The effects of this leadership form on the policy choices of these agencies are largely unknown. In this paper, I develop and formalize a theory of commission policymaking in an environment where political principals review their decisions. I argue that dissenting votes from commissioners serve as fire alarms for other actors to audit, and possibly reverse, commission policies. The commission chair, however, has incentives to craft policies that survive intervention by principals. Thus, when the commission's political principals are opposed to the chair, more consensual policies with less dissent emerge. A comparison to a model with a single leader suggests that commissions evince greater responsiveness to principals and have fewer of their policies vetoed by Congress and the courts. I test the hypotheses derived from the theory using two original datasets: a record of all Federal Communications Commission votes on notices of proposed rulemaking from 1965-2013 and a dataset of limitation riders directed at agency regulations. I find strong support for the hypotheses generated by the theory. Contrary to previous work, I show that commissions are not insulated from politics and bipartisanship does not guarantee consensual policymaking. These results have implications for understanding agency design, policymaking, and the democratic accountability of the administrative state.

Elections, Ideology, and Turnover in the U.S. Federal Government [Download paper]

Abstract:  A defining feature of public sector employment is the regular change in elected leadership. Yet, we know little about how elections influence public sector careers. We describe how elections alter policy outputs and disrupt the influence of civil servants over agency decisions. These changes shape the career choices of employees motivated by policy, influence, and wages. Using new Office of Personnel Management data on the careers of millions of federal employees between 1988 and 2011, we evaluate how elections influence employee turnover decisions. We find that presidential elections increase departure rates of career senior employees, particularly in agencies with divergent views relative to the new president and at the start of presidential terms. We also find suggestive evidence that vacancies in high-level positions after elections may induce lower-level executives to stay longer in hopes of advancing. We conclude with implications of our findings for public policy, presidential politics, and public management.

Creating Capacity: Presidential Control and the Senior Executive Service [Download paper]

Abstract: I examine how presidents control the capacity of agencies through the distribution of career Senior Executive Service employees. Unlike most studies of bureaucratic control that view effects on agency capacity as ancillary to the ideological goals of politicians, I argue that presidents seek to directly alter the capacity of agencies through this mechanism. I begin by first demonstrating that career SES employees are capacity-enhancing, improving the performance of agencies. I then develop a theory about the allocation of these appointments. I argue that presidents seek to increase the capacity of agencies that are ideologically-aligned with them but are constrained in their ability to do so by the preferences of Congress as well as existing bureaucratic arrangements. Using a dataset of SES allocations across agencies, I find strong support for my argument. The results suggest that in addition to seeking control over the ideological outputs of agencies, presidents also directly manipulate agency capacity.

Personnel Politics in the Federal Bureaucracy [Download paper]

Abstract: This paper examines an understudied tool of presidential control of the bureaucracy -- the ability of the president to shape the federal workforce. First, I develop a theory of personnel politics in which the president strategically allocates human resources to ideologically-aligned agencies. I also hypothesize that interest group politics plays a role in structuring presidential allocations, with agencies displaying higher levels of union penetration receiving higher personnel allocations, particularly during Democratic presidencies. Using an original dataset of budgeted personnel levels from fiscal years 1983-2012,  I find strong support for these hypotheses.  Further, I demonstrate one unique aspect of personnel politics as a tool of control -- its effects on the career concerns of individuals working in federal agencies.

Policy, Institutions, and Judicial Legitimacy: The Role of Issue Preferences in Structuring Attitudes Toward Courts (with Paul Gardner) [Download paper]

Critics and defenders of judicial elections have drawn attention to the issue of the effects of selection institutions on the publics’ evaluations of the judiciary. In this paper, we argue that individuals’ perceptions of courts are less affected by selection institutions and other procedural concerns and more by policy preferences. Using a variety of experimental and survey evidence, we demonstrate that while individuals’ views of judges and courts are somewhat influenced by selection methods, individual policy concerns play a much larger role. In particular, when individuals perceive a mismatch between their preferences and legal policy outcomes, they express significantly lower levels of support for and trust in courts. Furthermore, we demonstrate that these policy concerns also impact support for selection institutions. In particular, individuals who are dissatisfied with outcomes and judges are more likely to support elections over merit selection/retention plans. In sum, these results suggest that individuals’ support for courts and selection institutions are premised as much, if not more, on instrumental policy goals than on concerns for procedural justice and judicial independence.


Politicization and Employee Opinion in the Federal Bureaucracy

Rising Wages and Human Capital in the U.S. Government (with John de Figueiredo)

Ideology, Learning, and Performance in Federal Agencies (with Alex Hirsch)

Migration and Civil Service Reform in 19th Century America (with James Hollyer and Leonard Wantchekon)