Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

Essays on Presidential and Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch


Given gridlock in Congress, presidents and subunits of Congress are increasingly pursuing their policy goals in the executive branch. Yet we know little about how they go about doing so. In Chapter 1, I introduce the broad notion of positive agenda control by the president. Up until this point, the existing literature has been narrowly focused on presidents' negative agenda control over agencies (Moe 1985; Nathan 1983) and has only recognized positive agenda control in terms of executive orders (Moe and Howell 1999; Howell 2003). I argue that presidents direct their resources toward allied agencies to strengthen, pass, and implement policies the president supports. Using a newly collected dataset, I look at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the most important innovation in presidential power in 35 years, and I show that Presidents Clinton and Obama were disproportionately likely to use OIRA to review the policies of relatively more liberal agencies and President George W. Bush was disproportionately likely to use OIRA to review the policies of relatively more conservative agencies. This finding differs from the conventional wisdom that OIRA is a presidential watchdog and it changes how we think about presidential power in administrative oversight.

In Chapter 2, together with Abby Wood and Sean Gailmard, I turn to congressional committees and their pursuit of policy goals in the executive branch. We introduce the theory that congressional committees use oversight of bureaucracy as a means to mitigate agency problems they face with the bureaucracy. Up until this point, scholars have not systematically connected the oversight activity of Congress to the democratic problems created by delegation. The landmark analysis of Aberbach 1990 placed oversight in a framework centered on Congress and the broad contours of the national policymaking environment, without taking into account agency policymaking activity. In contrast, we present a principal-agent model of oversight and find support in a newly-collected dataset of on-the-record legislative hearings for the model's three observable implications: legislative oversight is increasing in agency policymaking activity, increasing in the amount of ideological conflict between committees and agencies, and increasing in the amount of ideological conflict between House and Senate committees during divided Congresses. Our results provide evidence that committees oversee agencies not merely to position-take for the next campaign cycle, but to influence actual policy outcomes.

In Chapter 3, I return to a focus on the president and I treat limiting lobbyist influence as a policy goal in its own right. I argue that lobbyists going "offensive" in their lobbying strategies combined with underwriting some of the work of under-resourced agencies puts lobbyists in a position to set the agenda in the executive branch. I contribute a bargaining model in which an agency, the president, and a lobbyist each have agenda-setting power some of the time. I derive the conditions under which the president, so long as he or she is not perfectly ideologically aligned with the agency, can limit the influence of the lobbyist on the agency's policies by acting as a "tough" bargaining agent. This model reveals a tradeoff from the standpoint of the agency between working with an ideologically aligned president (an ally on policymaking goals) and working with an ideologically unaligned president who can help limit lobbyist influence.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View