- Power without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action
In the weeks after 9/11, President George W. Bush issued numerous unilateral executive orders: he instituted a Secretary of Homeland Security and a Homeland Security Council, lifted Gerald Ford's directive against political assassinations by the CIA, froze financial assets linked to suspected terrorist networks, launched a military strike against Afghanistan, and created a new court system that allowed military tribunals to try noncitizens in specific circumstances. None of these orders went through the usual processes of deliberation in legislative or judicial institutions: they were direct, unilateral, executive decisions aimed toward quick changes in policy and status quo.
With these examples at the outset, William G. Howell's Power without Persuasion draws attention to a divide between scholarly studies and what in reality often takes place in the decision-making processes of the U.S. political system. Howell shows how conventional accounts of presidential power focus on a president's skill, reputation, and ability to persuade and negotiate within a legislative body. Previous studies have analyzed personal qualities of presidents and distinguish good from bad presidents by their ability to negotiate with Congress. By so doing, they position the president on the periphery of decision making: direct presidential power is limited to veto rights and bargaining. Howell claims that in fact presidents can "effect policy change outside of a bargaining framework" (13). Presidents have unilateral powers that go beyond persuasion and negotiation with Congress. They can—and have—exerted direct power on policymaking processes, and they have successfully prevented legislative and judicial institutions' ability to check and intervene.
Howell uses a wide pool of data from past presidential decisions to show not only that direct, unilateral presidential action has been influential beyond the merely administrative confines to which previous studies have limited its purview, but that significant executive orders have played key parts in foreign and domestic policy making. Howell identifies two features of direct power: the president can either act preemptively and create policy first so that Congress, Senate, and courts are left with revising a new set of policies, or the president can act alone without intervention. Through statistical measures and game theory models, Howell convincingly outlines scenarios where such unilateral action can be enacted effectively, as well as where presidential power remains limited by legislative bodies. Here, then, lies the book's strength: it does not simplify its argument by creating a model that overemphasizes unilateral action; instead, it outlines flexible institutional constraints that dynamically allocate freedom for unilateral action only in certain specific circumstances. [End Page 532]
The book's central part consists of an analysis of these constraints. A president can often overcome congressional constraints because he has an informational advantage over members of Congress: particularly in foreign and national security affairs, a president can decide on policies based on intelligence available only to him, whereas the Congress, often left in the dark, must scramble for pieces of information the president chooses to reveal. In the domestic arena, transaction costs affect congressional power to challenge executive unilateral decisions: because members of Congress represent a limited electorate, they must "always weigh the attendant electoral cost and benefits" (108), limiting the potential of Congress as a collective decision-making body to influence wide-ranging domestic policy issues. Howell's model shows how congressional constraints and direct presidential power run inversely proportional: the more cohesive Congress is, the less power a president can exert; the more fragmented Congress is, the more freedom a president holds for unilateral action. But Howell does not limit his argument to a simplified, one-sided theoretical model: through large data sets, he finds and discusses numerous exceptions and variations where congressional powers can effectively limit direct presidential action. In budgetary matters, for example, Congress can stop funding programs, or it can restrict the ways in which funds are allocated. Yet at the same time, members of Congress must be careful, for one major incident that could have been prevented by...