The theory of the unitary executive is one of the most controversial and significant constitutional doctrines of the past several decades. It holds that the US president alone embodies all executive power and therefore has unlimited ability to direct the many people and institutions within the federal government’s vast executive branch. It thus justifies the president’s prerogative to organize the executive branch and to direct its activities, to tell executive personnel what to do and to fire them if desired, to control the flow of information, and to issue signing statements that make judgments about constitutionality and determine the extent to which laws will be implemented. In some versions, it also endorses implied or inherent powers and permits the president to completely control foreign policy and military action.
Proponents say this conception of the presidential office is faithful to the Constitution, facilitates the sort of energetic executive that Alexander Hamilton argued for, and enhances administrative efficacy and political accountability for governance. Critics say this arrangement is constitutionally inaccurate, is belied by historical practice and legal precedents, and is dangerously close to the monarchical power that provoked the American Revolution – and can be especially threatening in the era of Donald Trump.
This book examines how controversies about unitary executive power have played out from the founding era to the present day with a focus on recent presidents, it explores arguments both for and against the unitary executive theory, and it looks ahead to future implications for American politics.
INTRODUCTION: The Theory of the Unitary Executive: What is the unitary executive theory, its origins, basis, and supposed benefits? 1. Nearly Two Centuries of Unitary Precedents: Episodes concerning what would later be called the unitary executive, from George Washington through the 1970s. 2. Explicit Unitary Battles in the 1980s and 1990s: Ronald Reagan and the birth of the explicit doctrine of the unitary executive, as well as how George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton utilized it. 3. The Unitary Executive in the 21st Century: George W. Bush’s vigorously unitary presidency, as well as how it evolved under Barack Obama and Donald Trump. 4. Normative Assessment of the Unitary Executive: Is the unitary executive theory faithful to the intentions of the founders and the constitutional text; is it good for effective administration and political accountability? 5. Empirical Assessment of the Unitary Executive: Does the unitary executive theory accurately describe what actually happens in the executive branch, or is practice more complicated than the principle? CONCLUSION: Unitary Politics: Ultimately, the ability of presidents to utilize the unitary executive theory is determined politically.
The books in the Presidential Briefings series provide concise and readable introductions to topics of general interest to students of the presidency. By approaching their subjects from the vantage point of what a president most needs to know, and what we as citizens most need to know about the presidency, these books provide a highly practical and accessible overview of an important subject related to the presidency. This series provides a wonderful opportunity for scholars, whether new or established, to publish concise and authoritative books on a wide range of presidency topics.