“The Foundations of the Modern Presidency: Presidential Representation, the Unitary Executive Theory, and the Reorganization Act of 1939,” John Dearborn, Yale

Event time: 
Wednesday, October 4, 2017 - 12:00pm to 1:15pm
Institution for Social and Policy Studies (PROS077 ), A002 See map
77 Prospect Street
New Haven, CT 06511
Event description: 


Abstract: This paper considers how two claims of presidential authority – presidential representation and the unitary executive theory – were contested during the legislative battle over the reorganization of the executive branch in the 1930s, culminating in the passage of the Reorganization Act of 1939. The unitary executive theory envisions top-down control of the executive branch, while the idea of presidential representation anticipates allowing the president’s purported national viewpoint to have a larger role in policymaking. The 1937 report of the President’s Committee on Administrative Management embraced both claims as rationales for different parts of its proposal for reorganization. I argue that, in passing compromise legislation in 1939, Congress rejected the unitary executive theory, but cautiously embraced the idea of presidential representation in reorganization. By rejecting the proposed changes to the independent regulatory commissions and General Accounting Office, Congress largely pushed back against the unitary executive theory. Conversely, in granting the president a qualified reorganization authority subject to a legislative veto, Congress cautiously embraced the purported logic of presidential representation. The president, elected by a national constituency, was perceived as more likely to reorganize the executive branch for effective governance than members of Congress, who were perceived as parochial and attached to the interests of various agencies. However, Congress’s accommodation of presidential representation, and accompanying rejection of the unitary executive theory, placed presidential reorganizing authority on a vulnerable constitutional foundation, as would later be shown in INS v. Chadha (1983).

John Dearborn is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science, studying the Presidency, Congress, and American Political Development. His dissertation examines the influence of the idea of presidential representation on the political development of the institutional presidency and its implications for American constitutional government. He graduated from the University of Connecticut with a B.A. in political science in 2013.

Open to: 
General Public