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Working Papers

A Theory of Presidential Centralization and Politicization


While the presidential strategies of centralization and politicization have long been considered key tools for presidential influence over federal policymaking, most previous work has studied these strategies informally and/or in isolation. This paper employs a formal model of both centralization and politicization to explore the trade-offs presidents face when deciding how to create policy. The model presents several findings. First, contrary to existing literature, the president’s ideal level of politicization is not monotonically increasing in ideological distance between the president and agency, but, after initially growing, is replaced by centralization. Second, Congress can exert substantial influence on the centralization/politicization decision absent visible action and apart from altering agency ideology. Finally, even when the president is able to employ both centralization and politicization, the strategies serve as strict substitutes if both are costly. More generally, the model illustrates how the joint examination of presidential tools affects our understanding of presidential actions.

The Politics of Presidential Centralization 

Presidential centralization of policy creation is a surprisingly difficult to measure and understudied presidential tool, especially considering its foundational role in presidential management of the executive branch. There are no existing measures of centralization by policy area, leaving at least two major gaps in the literature: namely, how centralization varies across policy areas or how centralization and politicization relate. This paper draws empirical predictions from a formal theory that jointly models centralization and politicization and tests them using the Survey on the Future of Government Service, a large-scale survey of federal government executives. With these surveys, I introduce the first two measures of centralization by policy area to examine how presidents strategically engage in centralization and politicization. Among other results, I show that greater ideological distance between the president and an agency's careerists is associated with increased centralization. Furthermore, politicization is replaced by centralization as ideological distance grows.

The Strategic Contexts of Presidential Centralization

Presidents consider a broad array of factors when deciding when to centralize policy creation into the Executive Office of the President. This paper examines how the broader, time-variant political context affects when presidents choose to engage in centralization, based on archival research of 352 policies randomly selected from the Eisenhower through Clinton Administrations. I use these data to test predictions about centralization inspired by an original formal model of the president's centralization-politicization decision. First, I find that Congress clearly impacts the centralization decision, as presidents are more likely to engage in centralization under conditions of divided government or greater ideological disagreement with either chamber of Congress. Within the executive branch, greater centralized staff capacity is distinct from, but associated with, higher levels of centralization. I also find evidence that Republican presidents are more likely than Democratic presidents to centralize governmental reorganization efforts.

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