The Unitary Executive as an Historical Variable: Presidential Control and Public Finance
Patrick O’Brien’s dissertation, “The Unitary Executive as an Historical Variable: Presidential Control and Public Finance” examines the policy domain of public finance broadly defined to include expenditures, receipts, and money and banking or, in modern terms, fiscal policy and monetary policy in order to demonstrate that presidential control over administration varies in broad historical patterns. Specifically, using a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods, O’Brien provides an overview of four historical systems of administration for public finance, describing what he terms the New Deal era apparatus (1933-1980) and the Reagan era apparatus (1981-present) during the modern period and the Founding era apparatus (1789-1828) and the Jackson era apparatus (1829-1860) during the early period. Moreover, O’Brien shows how presidential control varies not only across eras but also within eras, unfolding as a process of innovation, stabilization, and constraint. The theory and findings from O’Brien’s dissertation call into question the foundation of the unitary executive framework, the leading political science approach to studying the presidency. Rather than assume that all presidents maintain the same, fixed structural advantages relative to the other branches of government – a first-mover advantage, a collective-action advantage, and an informational advantage – and then focus on standard political variables such as party control of the presidency, congressional support, and popular support, he provides a theory that explains why these very structural advantages change over time. Additionally, O’Brien demonstrates empirically that a change in structural advantages is a stronger indicator of a change in policy than are any of the standard political variables.