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Power Shifts: Congress and Presidential Representation, John A. Dearborn

Reviewed by Jeffrey Crouch


John A. Dearborn's new study tracks how key aspects of the relationship between Congress and the presidency evolved throughout the twentieth century. His book Power Shifts: Congress and Presidential Representation is an ambitious and impressive exploration of “presidential representation,” the idea that the president will lead in a manner that is best for the entire country because the president represents the whole nation. Dearborn begins by briefly pointing to Donald Trump as undercutting the crucial expectation regarding presidential representation since he seemed to focus more on representing a subset of the country (his own supporters) instead of everyone (pp. x–xii). Throughout the book, Dearborn revisits major congressional policy choices and explains what role presidential representation may have played. He consults a wide range of evidence to support his arguments, including archival documents from several collections.

In the first part of the work, Dearborn explains how Congress in the early twentieth century not only agreed with the concept, but “actively promoted the superiority of presidential government” (p. 34). In a detailed examination of several policy areas, he tracks how widespread belief in presidential representation motivated Congress to pass laws over several decades that increased “presidential responsibilities and organizational capacities,” particularly involving the areas of “budgeting, trade, reorganization and employment policy” (pp. 37, 244). National security was approached differently because the president has the “commander in chief” clause that provides a constitutional claim to a role on that issue (p. 37). But motivating many of these decisions was the shared idea that the president works for everyone (p. 244). Dearborn devotes much of the first part of the book to examining what members of Congress were saying regarding the various decisions they made to provide the presidency with steadily increasing responsibilities and authority throughout this time period.

And then, as Dearborn documents in the second part of his study, things changed. In the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, presidential representation was viewed as suspect, and Congress expressed doubts about the ongoing value of depending on what had become an “imperial presidency,” as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. famously characterized it (pp. 157, 244–245). Other factors that in the 1980s changed the prior calculus include more polarized politics fueled by issues increasingly addressed on a national stage, two major political parties with a realistic chance of taking over a majority in Congress, and a splintered mass media ecosystem (pp. 158–159). Because of these changes, Congress began to question whether to continue to support presidential authority over the issues that earlier legislatures had empowered the president to handle. Dearborn notes that while Congress has considered anew its grants of authority to the president, “the fundamental consequences of the idea of presidential representation are… still very much with us, even if some presidential authority was pared back” (p. 246).

To conclude the book, Dearborn circles back briefly to institutional weaknesses exposed by the Trump presidency. He notes “a general agreement that we have a problem with our institutional arrangements, but thinking about what to do about it is all over the map” (pp. 253–254). Dearborn comments that if current thought leaders cannot agree on how to proceed, “we may be in real trouble” (p. 254). Readers can make up their own minds about what the future may hold, but Dearborn's thoughtful book provides plenty to consider.

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