The Changing Nature of Presidential Policy Making on International Agreements


  • AUTHORS' NOTE: The research reported herein is supported by a Dirksen Center Congressional Research Award (2003). A preliminary version of this article was presented at the History of Congress Conference, December 5-6, 2003, Del Mar, California (hosted by the University of California–San Diego, Stanford University, and Washington University), where we received constructive comments from discussant Jim Snyder (MIT) and from Jeff Jenkins (Northwestern University) and Barbara Sinclair (UCLA). We also wish to thank the editor and anonymous reviewers for several helpful suggestions.

Glen S. Krutz is an associate director of the Carl Albert Congressional Studies Research and Studies Center and an associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. Recent publications include work appearing in the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, Legislative Studies Quarterly, and several other journals. He is the author of the book Hitching a Ride: Omnibus Legislating in the U.S. Congress.

Jeffrey S. Peake is an associate professor of political science at Bowling Green State University. Recent publications include articles appearing in the American Political Science Review, Political Research Quarterly, American Politics Research, and several other journals.


Why are executive agreements (EAs), rather than treaties, increasingly used to formalize U.S. relations with other countries? We examine this question from two perspectives. In the first, known as the “evasion” hypothesis, presidents act strategically to evade the Senate when governing circumstances are difficult. This strategic view reflects the conventional wisdom. Second, we consider whether organizational efficiency drives presidential use of EAs. As the number of countries increases, requiring more international agreements, it becomes necessary to rely more on an efficient mechanism to “get things done.” We test these rival hypotheses by analyzing EA use as a percentage of all international agreements, as well as a subset of important EAs, from 1949 to 1998. In contrast to the conventional wisdom, we find consistent support for the efficiency hypothesis and only mixed support for the evasion hypothesis. Within these mixed findings, an interesting trend emerges. As expected, presidents act more strategically on the subset of important agreements, but this behavior appears to be driven by the ideological makeup of the Senate rather than partisan cleavages.