Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Administration of the Government

Consulting Editor: David E. Lewis

Princeton University

One of the chief functions of the American President is to preside over the administration of government, its agencies, and its civilian and military employees. According to the Constitution, neither the judicial nor the legislative branches are to implement the judgments of the courts or the laws enacted by Congress. Instead, it is an executive branch headed by the President that administers the functions of government. This responsibility is derived from Article II of the Constitution, which establishes that "The executive power shall be vested in a President ." The same article goes on to provide the President with specific limited formal powers related to the administration of government, including the power to nominate the principal officers of government and to request in writing the opinions of the heads of government departments.

The Constitution provides very little detail about the executive branch, with the exception of a few scattered references to officers and departments. Instead, the structure and character of the executive branch, like the vague executive powers of the President, is shaped and defined by the interplay of the three branches. Today there are 15 cabinet departments, approximately 50 to 60 independent agencies, and a number of smaller boards and commissions. The extent to which Presidents control the agencies varies from one to another. Some agencies, such as independent regulatory commissions or the Federal Reserve, are designed to be insulated from presidential influence.

Article II contains the mandate that the President "take care that the laws be faithfully administered." While some of the President's administrative powers are limited by laws governing the personnel of the civil and military services, the import of the aforementioned constitutional prescription is immense: it is the President who is to be held accountable not only for policy leadership but for how well and how effectively the cabinet and line agencies are fulfilling their duties. At times, even seemingly minor operational matters can, if handled badly, explode in the President's face and embarrass the President publicly and politically. The chief executive and his staff must find ways to be continually informed of departmental and agency operations -- to be watchful, even of some details. Even though Presidents are held accountable for the functioning of government agencies, the President's ability to control these agencies is curtailed by a number of factors.

For starters, Presidents compete with Congress for control of administrative agencies. Since Congress passes laws creating agencies, enacts the legislation that agencies implement, and appropriates the money that agencies spend, it has a legitimate claim to the management and direction of the executive branch. This is reflected not only in Congress's ability to confirm presidential nominations to the top positions in the executive branch but also in its ability to direct agency activity by conducting oversight hearings and investigations, writing instructions for agencies into law, and increasing or decreasing agency appropriations.

Agencies also have some autonomy due to civil service rules and regulations. Since the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, civil service laws have regulated segments of the federal employee pool. The shape and coverage of these protections has changed over time. Eventually, these laws provided that federal employees below the presidential appointee level could not be hired, promoted, or fired except on the basis of merit. They also placed restrictions on electioneering by federal employees and granted to employees the rights to hearing and appeal in cases of adverse personnel actions.

How does the President exercise his policy and administrative responsibilities? The formal powers of the President, supplemented by informal powers and strategies, help Presidents control the executive branch. Presidents principally use appointments, influence over the budget, administrative directives, and the resources of the institutional presidency to direct and monitor the executive branch. Currently, Presidents appoint approximately 600 full time, nonadvisory agency officials with Senate confirmation and 800 second-tier managers and 1,800 staff-type appointees without confirmation. The President constantly engages in direct and indirect communication with his appointed subordinates. This team of 3,000 to 3,500 appointees manages an executive branch in excess of 2 million civilian employees, most of whom are shielded by some form of merit protection. Presidents have also sought at times to increase the numbers of appointees and to choose appointees on the basis of loyalty in order to gain more control of executive branch agencies. This politicization of the executive branch has not been without controversy or consequence for presidential management.

The President is also responsible, through the Office of Management and Budget, for gathering agency budget requests, revising them, and putting them together in one cohesive budget for Congress. Agencies are eventually funded through appropriations bills enacted by Congress and signed by the President. The President can influence agency activity by controlling how much funding agencies request and by approving or vetoing appropriations bills. Presidents can effectively change policy by securing more or less money for an agency or program, or by threatening to do so based upon agency performance.

Presidents also influence the executive branch through executive orders, national security directives, presidential memoranda, or other forms of presidential direct action. Presidents have substantial discretion in the interpretation of laws that executive branch agencies are mandated to implement. Laws are often drafted vaguely as a result of Congress's desire to give agencies needed flexibility in implementation or because compromise is necessary to get legislation passed in the same form in both the House and the Senate. Presidents issue executive orders or directives of different types based upon either congressionally delegated statutory or constitutional authority. These orders have the force of law unless they contravene existing law. Presidents have used this power to influence agency policies dealing with subjects such as civil rights, environmental regulation, trade policy, and abortion.

Presidents often control important administrative decisions by centralizing control in the White House or Executive Office of the President. As increasing amounts of policy-making authority are delegated to executive branch agencies, Presidents have incentives to ensure that policy decisions are made effectively and in ways that are consistent with the administration's policy positions. Another imperative for centralization has appeared over the past several decades: important policy and administrative issues can no longer be contained within the jurisdictions of one department or agency. Matters affecting national security or homeland security, for instance, sweep across the old agency boundaries. As a consequence, the development, coordination, articulation and, in some instances, implementation of major policies has been drawn away from the departments and has been centered in the presidency. The presidency has grown to master this centralization. The Executive Office of the President began in 1939; it now has some thirteen principal elements. Within the Executive Office, the White House staff has grown as well (for more information, see the "Administration of the White House")

Material for this essay has been adapted from Bradley H. Patterson Jr., The White House Staff: Inside the West Wing and Beyond, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings institution Press, 2000). Reprinted with permission by the Brookings Institution Press.

General Works

Pfiffner, James P., ed. The Managerial Presidency, 2nd ed. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1999.

Waterman, Richard W. Presidential Influence and the Administrative State. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

Administrative Strategies

Arnold, Peri E. Making the Managerial Presidency: Comprehensive Reorganization Planning, 1905-1996. 2nd , rev. ed. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Heclo, Hugh. "OMB and the Presidency--the problem of neutral competence.'" The Public Interest 38 (Winter):80-98, 1975.

Lewis, David E. "The Presidency and the Bureaucracy: Management Imperatives in a Separation of Powers System," in Michael Nelson, ed., The Presidency and the Political System, 8th ed. Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 2005.

Moe, Terry M. "The Politicized Presidency,"in The New Direction in American Politics, edited by J. E. Chubb and P. E. Peterson. Washington, DC: Brookings, 1985.

Moe, Terry M., and Scott A. Wilson. "Presidents and the Politics of Structure," Law and Contemporary Problems 57 (2):1-44, 1994.

Nathan, Richard P. The Plot that Failed: Nixon and the Administrative Presidency. New York: John Wiley, 1975.

Rourke, Francis E. "Responsiveness and Neutral Competence in American Bureaucracy," Public Administration Review 52 (6):539-, 1992.

Rudalevige, Andrew. Managing the President's Program: Centralization and Legislative Policy Formulation, 1949-1996. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Waterman, Richard W. Presidential Influence and the Administrative State. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

Weko, Thomas J. The Politicizing Presidency: The White House Personnel Office. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

Budgeting and Spending

Fisher, Louis. Presidential Spending Power. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Fisher, Louis. Congressional Abdication on War and Spending. College Station, TX: Texas A&M Press, 2000.

Schick, Allen. The Federal Budget: Politics, Policy, and Process. Washington, DC: Brookings, 2000.

The Cabinet

Bennett, Anthony J. The American President's Cabinet: From Kennedy to Bush. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Cronin, Thomas E. The State of the Presidency, 2nd ed., ch. 8. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1980.

Fenno, Richard F. The President's Cabinet. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959.

Rudalevige, Andrew. "The President and the Cabinet," in Michael Nelson, ed., The Presidency and the Political System, 8th ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2005.

Civil Service

Fish, Carl Russell. The Civil Service and the Patronage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1904.

Johnson, Ronald N., and Gary D. Libecap. The Federal Civil Service System and the Problem of Bureaucracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Kaufman, Herbert. "The Growth of the Federal Personnel System," in The Federal Government Service, edited by W. S. Sayre. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1965.

Nelson, Michael. "A Short Ironic History of the American National Bureaucracy," Journal of Politics 44:747-778, 1982.

U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Biography of an Ideal: A History of the Federal Civil Service. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Van Riper, Paul P. History of the United States Civil Service. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson and Company, 1958.

Constitutional Powers and Conflicts

Corwin, Edward S, ed. The President: Office and Powers 1787-1984. 5th rev ed. New York: New York University Press, 1984.

Fisher, Louis. Constitutional Conflicts Between the President and Congress, 4th ed. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

Fisher, Louis. The Politics of Shared Power: Congress and the Executive, 4th ed. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1998.

Rosenbloom, David H. "Presidential Power and the Courts," in The American Presidency, edited by H. A. Bailey and J. M. Shafritz. Chicago: Dorsey Press, 1988.

Executive Office of the President and Presidential Staff Agencies

Burke, John P. The Institutional Presidency. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, University Press, 1992.

Dickinson, Matthew J. Bitter Harvest: FDR, Presidential Power and the Growth o the Presidential Branch. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Hart, John. The Presidential Branch. New York: Chatham House, 1995.

Relyea, Harold, ed. The Executive Office of the President: A Historical, Biographical, and Bibliographical Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Presidential Appointments

Aberbach, Joel D., and Bert A. Rockman. In the Web of Politics: Three Decades of the U.S. Federal Executive. Washington, DC: Brookings, 2000.

Edwards, George C., III. "Why Not the Best? The Loyalty-Competence Trade-Off in Presidential Appointments," Brookings Review 19 (2):12-16, 2001.

Gerhardt, Michael J. The Federal Appointments Process. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Heclo, Hugh. A Government of Strangers: Executive Politics in Washington. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1977.

Mackenzie, G. Calvin. The Politics of Presidential Appointments. New York: Free Press, 1981.

Mackenzie, G. Calvin, ed. The In-and-Outers: Presidential Appointees and Transient Government in Washington. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Randall, Ronald. "Presidential Powers versus Bureaucratic Intransigence: The Influence of the Nixon Administration on Welfare Policy," American Political Science Review 73 (3):795-810, 1979.

Presidential Executive Orders and Directives

Cooper, Phillip J. By Order of the President: The Use and Abuse of Executive Direct Action. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

Howell, William G. Power Without Persuasion: A Theory of Presidential Action. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Mayer, Ken. With the Stroke of a Pen. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Moe, Terry M., and William G. Howell. "Unilateral Action and Presidential Power: A Theory," Presidential Studies Quarterly 29 (4):850-72, 1999.