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The Contemporary Presidency: Executive Ambition Versus Congressional Ambivalence


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: This article is a summary of Congressional Ambivalence: The Political Burdens of Constitutional Authority. I thank Lawrence C. Dodd, Daniel J. Palazzolo, and James P. Pfiffner for their insightful comments and suggestions.

Jasmine Farrier is an associate professor of political science at the University of Louisville. She is the author of Passing the Buck: Congress, the Budget, and Deficits.


Congress's problematic place in contemporary separation of powers arrangements is revealed in its cycles of ambivalence. First, Congress suppresses its traditional legislative processes or delegates power to the executive branch or an independent commission, arguing that its deliberative and representative norms should not flourish at the expense of the “national interest.” Second, after the delegated power becomes controversial or expires, members express implied or explicit regret about the loss of power in myriad ways, such as new bills to curtail or delay the delegated powers, criticism of policy outcomes in oversight hearings, and foot dragging on new executive requests for additional resources. Third, at the next opportunity to recalibrate power on the policy, Congress demurs again and delegation is renewed. Variations on the cycle of ambivalence span decades of policy on military base closures, trade, war, and appropriations, all of which saw dramatic new iterations during the George W. Bush era.