Presidential Federalism: Executive Power, Administrative Decentralization, and the Transformation of America's Compound Republic

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Jacobs, Nicholas, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Milkis, Sidney, AS-Dept of Politics, University of Virginia
Ceaser, James, AS-Dept of Politics, University of Virginia

This dissertation is about one source of the American presidency’s vast power: its ability to pursue policy and political objectives within state and local governing institutions. Within the last five years, a number of legal scholars have triumphed the arrival of “executive-centered” federalism in the United States. Through a detailed historical study of the 20th Century presidency, I show that there is a deep history of presidential involvement in state and local politics. Tracing the emergence of several institutional reforms, I argue that such interactions have transformed the obligations, relations of authority, and public expectations of executive power at every level of government. Most scholars consider federalism to be a bulwark against enhanced presidential power. I argue the contrary: federalism was, and remains, an essential opportunity structure in the exercise of presidential power.

The research relies on primary, historical material, much of it original discovery from the archival holdings of the four institutions that anchor this work: The National Resources Planning Board, the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, the Bureau of the Budget, and the Office of Management and Budget. This evidence demonstrates how presidents have used their administrative, rhetorical, and partisan powers within state and local governing institutions, particularly mayoralties and governorships. To the extent that modern intergovernmental relations is defined by the use of administrative waivers, competitive grant-programs, and executive-negotiation over program implementation, I trace how similar mechanisms of presidential power contributed to the development of the American State throughout the 20th century. Scholars tend to ignore much of this historical narrative and the political thought that undergirds it, most of which hinges on a collection of budgetary and administrative reforms. My research shows why presidents viewed these changes as necessary, and how these administrative procedures have allowed presidents to respond to demands for new public policy by skirting Congressional authority.

This work treats presidents as institutional actors, and challenges the idea that even “principled” executives are committed to decentralized governance. Federalism allowed presidents of both parties to pursue their goals unilaterally, with the effect of further nationalizing policy and the party's dependence on presidential policymaking. Culminating with the presidencies of Obama and Trump, this dissertation clarifies how and why presidents choose to pursue policy objectives in constitutionally-independent governments, and reveals the administrative mechanisms that have made them successful.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Presidency, Federalism
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