Between Two Fires: The Institutional and Public Constraints to Unilateral Policy Change

AuthorSharece Thrower
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2023, Vol. 76(1) 1428
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211069579
Between Two Fires: The Institutional and
Public Constraints to Unilateral Policy
Sharece Thrower
Though the US presidency literature widely examines how Congress limits executive power, recent discourse argues the
public is the more effective restraint. This paper develops a theory explaining when inter -institutional relations and public
constraints inuence the alteration of unilateral directives. Both are important for curbi ng substantial policy changes that
likely provoke congressional and public response. Using data on when executive orders are amended and revoked
between 1955 and 2013 to measure policy shifts, I nd orders are less likely to be altered under presidents facing
oppositional or cohesive congresses and high public disapproval. Both types of constraints are strongest for large policy
changes, that is, revocations or targeting ideologically distant orders. This study advances the unilateralism literatur e by
examining interactions between multiple constraints and degrees of policy change, while also contributing to studies of
policy duration.
executive power, policymaking, separation of powers, public approval, unilateral action
The excess of presidential power is one of the most
pervasive fears in public and political spheres. Expansive
executive authority is not merely an artifact of recent
presidents, but reects a growing trend toward what some
scholars call the imperial presidency (Rudalevige 2005).
As one reporter insightfully noted, Trump per se isnt the
power. Power is the problem, and years and the chickens
we have so carefully raised by weakening constraints on
the executive branch are nally coming home to roost.
Many attribute the rise of executive power to the abate-
ment of institutional checks, particularly from Congress.
Senator Mike Lee announced executive overreach is an
enormous problemlargely of Congresss own mak-
Professor Neal Devins called checks and balances
an abject failurebecause Congress lacks both the will
and the way to check the presidency.
Posner and Vermeule (2010) agree that institutional
restraints on the president have eroded considerably over
the last two hundred years,while arguing the public can
ll this void: the major constraints on the executivedo
not arise from law or from the separation-of-powers frame-
workbut from politics and public opinion.Scholars and
political observers often believe both Congress, riddled with
gridlock and informational disadvantages, and the courts,
deferential and fearful of non-enforcement, are ineffective at
curbing executive power (Moe and Howell 1999). The public,
on the other hand, might be a more credible threat to elec-
torally motivated presidents whose popularity determines their
legislative and judicial successes (e.g., Rivers and Rose 1985;
Yates 2002). Accordingly, recent scholarship nds public
opinion constrains unilateral actions (Christenson and Kriner
2019;Reeves and Rogowski 2016), a tool affording presi-
dents the greatest opportunity to act independently from the
other branches of government.
The preponderance of the unilateralism literature,
however, centers on legislative constraints, often re-
vealing presidents issue fewer directives when facing an
oppositional or internally cohesive Congress (e.g., Howell
2003). Some scholars highlight statutory and non-
statutory tools (Chiou and Rothenberg 2017)or
Department of Political Science, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN,
Corresponding Author:
Sharece Thrower, Political Science, Vanderbilt University, 325
Commons Center, Nashville, TN 37203, USA.

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