The institutional presidency in Latin America: a comparative analysis.

Author:Inacio, Magna


The assessment of presidential power has been a central object of analysis in studies on Latin American presidentialism. The initial focus on the personal attributes of the leadership later moved on to approaches centered on institutional features. Many studies have examined the use of vetoes and agenda-setting powers to explain the different dynamics and performance of the executive powers of the region (among others, Shugart and Carey 1992; Carey and Shugart 1998; Figueiredo and Limongi 1999; Tsebelis and Aleman 2005). Despite significant progress in this literature, the organizational conditions on which presidents rely to exert their institutional prerogative remain under-researched. Most importantly, there has been no analysis of whether presidents have needed to modify such conditions in order to maintain control of or improve their ability to coordinate the governments over which they preside.

This study sheds light on these questions by undertaking the first steps for a comparative study of Latin American institutional presidencies after re-democratization. (1) Our research concentrates on the cluster of agencies that form the "core executive" (Peters et al 2000) or the "institutional presidency" (Moe 1993, 2000). These agencies are part of the bureaucracy of the executive branch, but they are not located within the executive cabinet; their defining characteristic is that they operate under the direct authority of the president and are responsible for supporting the presidential leadership (Dickinson 2005). To enable the study of these agencies, we have created an original dataset that documents all structural changes that have occurred under the umbrella of the president in six countries (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, and Uruguay) since the beginning of re-democratization. We observe that presidents have deliberately changed the structures supporting them over the years. The institutional presidency has at times been expanded and at other times reduced, and we inquire as to the causes of such evolutions.

In particular, we are interested in exploring under what conditions the institutional presidencies have evolved throughout the last two to three decades of democratic rule. In general terms, our study follows the specialized literature, according to which changes in the institutional design of the presidency are associated with political and governmental challenges occurring in the broader political system. Presidents respond to situations of conflict or weakness by strengthening the structures that directly support them. However, we adjust this approach to Latin American realities by introducing an explanatory factor--the type of government--that has not been dealt with in the abovementioned literature. Thus, we assess whether there are differences in the evolution of the institutional presidency according to the number of political parties that form the government. We assume that single-party and coalition governments pose different challenges for the president. Similarly, we expect that the resources available to presidents and the liberty with which presidents move to respond to emerging problems vary according to the number of parties that make up the government.

Of the many changes that have affected presidential support structures over the years, this article particularly analyzes the evolution of the units or agencies of support. Following Moe (1985, 1993, 2000), an increase in the number of presidential agencies can be regarded as "centralization"--that is, a shifting of the functions of the wider executive branch to the core executive; while, conversely, "decentralization" occurs when presidents remove agencies from their direct authority and place them under the authority of a cabinet minister instead. Although investigating the movement of agencies provides only a partial picture of the many changes occurring under the presidential umbrella, it still adds to our current knowledge on the strategic behavior of presidents. To date, the literature has revealed the legislative and appointment powers of the president as the main resources that presidents utilize to exercise their governing tasks (Raile, Pereira, and Power 2011). We argue that the strategic alteration of the institutional presidency adds to the toolbox presidents have to exercise their governing tasks; this toolbox also includes agenda-setting power, pork-barreling, and ministerial nominations--which are those aspects usually highlighted in the literature (Figueiredo and Limongi 1999; Amorim Neto 2000; Altman 2000; Martinez-Gallardo 2012). However, this strategic tool has its own costs and can only be used selectively, which is why we expect to find it more often in coalition governments, where problems with internal management and coordination are normally more intense.

The paper is organized as follows. The next section presents the theoretical background to the study of the institutional presidency, with an emphasis on existing theories on the growth of the U.S. presidency and references to the Latin American discussion. The following section further clarifies the concept of institutional presidency and presents the hypotheses explaining its growth. We then deal with the research question, data, and methodology. The next section presents and discusses our findings, and the final section concludes with our pending tasks and the implications of this work for the agenda of presidential studies in Latin America.

The Expansion of the Institutional Presidency: Does the Type of Government Matter?

Students of the U.S. presidency have shown that presidents have incentives to create and strengthen technical, administrative, and advisory presidential supports both to confront critical junctures--the modern U.S. presidency emerged after the Great Depression--and to face the challenges posed by the system of "separated institutions sharing powers." At the same time, scholars have documented the increasing centralization of authority around the person of the chief executive and the steady movement towards the institutional reinforcement of the political core executive for most advanced industrial countries over the last forty to fifty years (Peters et al. 2000). According to this literature, the growth of the institutional presidency is connected to developments within the larger political system--that is, the governmental and political challenges that presidents face (Moe 1985; Mezey 2013; Ponder 2012). Presidents adjust the format and tasks of the agencies under their authority to manage their relationship with the political environment. Three prominent explanations are given for the emergence and growth of the institutional presidency: increased government responsibilities, the reassertion of presidential leadership vis-a-vis the political environment (Congress and the general public), and more astute management of cabinet politics.

The expansion of the executive's governance capacity to deal with major social and economic challenges is one of the classical explanations given for the growth of the U.S. institutional presidency. Beginning in the late nineteenth century but becoming particularly marked in the early twentieth century, the role of government both in the United States and elsewhere began to expand steadily, with increased government responsibilities being one of the results. This had a profound effect on the size and political role of the executive branch, and gave rise to the bureaucratic state. The enlargement of the executive branch gave greater prominence and power to the president, but it also brought about many problems because presidents were now expected to manage all of their old responsibilities and new challenges as well (Mezey 2013). According to this line of analysis, presidents had incentives to create and enlarge technical, administrative, and advisory presidential support bodies so as to confront critical challenges (national security threats, recessions, popular unrest) and to handle their increasing responsibilities. This was the case for President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression (Pelikan 2005). Exponents of this thesis are, for instance, Ragsdale and Theis (1997), whose model demonstrates that the growth of the presidential institution matches more closely the increase in government responsibilities and presidential workload over the course of decades than it does individual presidential styles or the political conditions under which presidents work.

A second thesis posits that the predominant explanation for the expansion of the institutional presidency is the president's need to influence policymaking. The post-Franklin D. Roosevelt expansion is thus portrayed as an attempt to mitigate the role of Congress in the appointment, dismissal, and oversight of government officials and to reassert strong administrative leadership (Howell 2003). Terry Moe's take on the "politicized presidency" (1985) shows how presidents respond to the limited formal authority and increased expectations of presidential power by structuring and staffing the bureaucracy in a way that makes the different agencies responsive to presidential dictate. Similarly, Rudalevige (2002) and Rudalevige and Lewis (2005) have argued that centralization under presidential authority is a presidential strategy adopted to overcome hostile congresspersons and bureaucracies in order to implement new policy agendas. There have been many other works focusing on the impact of the president's political constraints on the institutional presidency. Dickinson (2000) connected the growth of the White House staff to presidential bargaining with Congress and to what occurred in the electoral arena. Krause (2002) found that changes in the expenditures of the Executive Office of the President (EOP) are primarily explained by the institutional rivalry between the president and Congress. Dickinson and...

To continue reading