Two Miami University political science faculty members recently published a book analyzing the theory of the unitary executive in the American presidency.
Ryan Barilleaux, political science professor, and Christopher Kelley, political science adjunct assistant professor, co-edited “The Unitary Executive and the Modern Presidency” with contributions from several other constitutional law and presidential politics scholars, including three other Miami faculty: Patrick Haney, political science professor, Melanie Marlowe, political science instructor and Bryan Marshall, associate professor of political science.
“The theory of the unitary executive is based on a clause from the Constitution,” Barilleaux said. “It says that because the Constitution vests executive power in the president, the president should have very broad authority over what happens in the executive branch.”
Barilleaux said this theory allows the president to act without the approval of Congress.
“For example, President Bush argued that the power of the unitary executive gave him the power to set up military tribunals to try terror suspects,” Barilleaux said. “He did set them up, but the Supreme Court shut them down, saying Congress would have to approve them.”
Barilleaux also explained the president’s use of another executive power, signing statements, as it applies to the unitary executive.
“Signing statements are when the president signs a law, then issues a statement instructing his administration to ignore certain aspects of it that infringe on his unitary executive powers,” Barilleaux said. “They’ve been around for a long time, but it’s basically been since President Reagan that presidents have made use of them.”
Kelley said he and Barilleaux wanted to convey three main concepts in the book. First, here is a theory that explains the actions of both Republican and Democrat administrations. Second, the theory’s tenets are perfectly consistent with the Constitution. Third, the second Bush Administration acted in a manner entirely inconsistent with the theory and the Constitution.
“Thus the book is divided into two parts, where part one addresses points one and two and part two addresses point three,” Kelley said via e-mail.
Kelley said the concepts addressed in this book are consistent with work he and other contributing scholars have produced.
“Ryan (Barilleaux) has written extensively on the topic of presidential unilateralism,” Kelley said via e-mail. “I have written a great deal — along with my colleague Bryan Marshall — on the presidential signing statement, which I tied to the unitary executive theory when I wrote my dissertation back in 2003.”
Barilleaux said he and Kelley’s conclusion does not pass judgment on presidential power.
“My conclusion about the growth in presidential power just describes what it is, why it happened and what the consequences are from the way our government works,” Barilleaux said. “Certain aspects are good, but not all of it is good.”
Barilleaux thinks the concepts covered in the book are relevant to students.
“I think students, like anyone else, should care because it affects the way the government they live under works,” Barilleaux said. “It affects how much power the president has and the government affects everyone’s daily lives.”
It is especially important that students pay close attention to this because the media distorts the controversy surrounding the unitary executive, Barilleaux said.
“The media acts like the notion of a unitary executive began and ended with George W. Bush,” Barilleaux said. “A lot of people who radically oversimplify the issue also make claims that are just not true … it’s something bigger than just George W. Bush, and that’s the point we’re trying to make.”
Outgoing Student Body President Jonathan McNabb, a political science major, said he believes in a strong executive and thinks the power of the unitary executive and signing statements are essential to the president carrying out his or her duties.
“I think it’s all about to what degree (these powers) are being used to make law and to what extent they override the express will of Congress,” McNabb said. “I think (American presidents) have the right amount of power.”
McNabb said he thinks it is important to learn about the American presidency and this book is an important tool for people to gain a deeper understanding of presidential power.
“I think it’s really important to understand the American president beyond just the basic stuff,” McNabb said. “Students need to understand the implications of the presidency.”