Review. How does the White House Respond to Agency Initiatives?

Screening and Vetting as Alternative Modes of Reactive Oversight

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Available evidence suggests that proactive efforts by the White House to shape the domestic bureaucracy’s policy agenda are much more limited than the reactive role it plays in response to agency initiatives. This is consistent with the emergence of regulatory review as the primary institutional mechanism for centralized executive influence over agencies’ exercise of delegated policy-making authority.

In this article W.F. West gives attention to the empirical aspects of regulatory review as well as to its theoretical implications.  From a positive standpoint, reactive oversight is consistent with the interrelated motives and constraints of the presidency’s systematic management of policy implementation by bureaucracie as it allows the White House to allocate limited time and effort to issues that are politically important. Importance is defined in part by agency actions that conflict with the president’s policy agenda and in part by bureaucratic initiatives that evoke conflict within the executive branch and the political system more generally. In this regard, screening and vetting might be viewed as alternative theories of presidential administration that reflect very different assumptions.

Screening is consistent with a straightforward interpretation of principal–agent theory. It assumes that presidents have goals, either in terms of substantive policy objectives or the interests of constituents they wish to serve, and it views executive oversight as a way of ensuring that those charged with implementing programs do not deviate from those goals.

Vetting is based on very different premises than screening. One is that presidents do not have clear agendas in many areas. Another is that presidents rarely become personally involved in issues of domestic administration, and those who conduct “centralized” oversight on their behalf often bring conflicting perspectives to bear. Such conflict is inevitable given the pluralistic character of the president’s national constituency and the diversity of agencies and interests those agencies have been created to promote.

We can therefore refine our understanding of the administrative presidency by assessing the relative importance of screening and vetting and how it might vary over time and as a function of contextual factors.

Positive theory also has important normative implications. Arguments that the centralization of executive authority counter-reacts the centrifugal forces that exist within the bureaucracy (and that are reinforced by Congress) are seldom framed in precise terms. As a consequence, neither those who endorse a unitary executive nor those who take a more critical view of the administrative presidency have portrayed its true nature. Although reactive oversight is beneficial in some respects, it is different from and more limited than the kind of coordination that advocates of executive centralization seem to have in mind. Ironically, moreover, its often pluralistic character can undermine the interest of the state inefficient and transparent public administration.

(Fabrizio Di Mascio)