The Unbundled Executive
In a recent paper, Chris Berry and I analyze what we call the unbundled executive: a plural executive regime in which discrete authority is taken from the President and given exclusively to a directly elected executive official. Imagine a directly elected War Executive, Education Executive or Agriculture Executive. We show that the standard arguments used to justify a single executive in the United States actually justify a specific type of plural executive, not the single executive structure favored in Article II.
Suppose there is only one single elected executive who has responsibility for all j policy dimensions in a jurisdiction. Elections require voters to make a single elect-reject decision. Because of the crudeness of the electoral sanction, it is a weak way for voters to control the single executive on any particular policy dimension. Voters must make a decision on a bundle of policy dimensions. As a result, the official can enact special interest-friendly policies or their personal preferences on some dimensions, as long as she enacts voter-friendly policies on a sufficient number of dimensions to secure reelection. Instead of electing one executive to oversee all policy dimensions, suppose a jurisdiction elects several executives each of whom is exclusively and exhaustively responsible for one dimension. In this unbundled regime, citizens need not aggregate judgments across multiple policy issues at election time. An executive who enacts an interest-group-friendly policy in her single domain will not be able to placate voters with voter-friendly policies on other issues.
Voters also seek to pick good types for elected office. Yet, candidates who would make for good war executives may not make for good economy executives. In the single completely bundled regime, voters must select one candidate who is either an average good type or who is a good type on some dimensions, but less capable on others. In the unbundled executive regime, voters are free to select a good environmental type for the environment executive while selecting a good military type for the war executive. The unbundled executive allows voters to better match expertise, ability, and other characteristics that make for good executive performance to the underlying demands of a policy domain.
Historically, the reasons that a plural executive regime was rejected and a single executive regime embraced are many, but a handful of recurrent themes top the list.
Accountability. The President is the only elected official with a truly national constituency. Multiple executives would create confusion and ambiguity about which officials were responsible for what policy. As Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 70, the inability to impose electoral sanctions undermines the democratic process, debilitating the power of voters to select and discipline politicians. The reason this claim is wrong is that it assumes a plural executive must entail overlapping or concurrent authority rather than exclusive authority. When multiple parties share authority, it may in fact be difficult to assign blame or credit. But the single versus plural executive question is conceptually distinct from the overlapping versus exclusive jurisdiction question. The unbundled executive regime would parcel out authority to well-identified and directly elected executive officials, facilitating rather than undermining the democratic process, clarifying authority rather than ambiguating it. So long as unbundling is coupled with exclusive authority within a jurisdiction, the unbundled executive is more accountable than the single executive, not less.
Functional Duties & Single Executives. Another frequent assertion about singularity in the executive is that functional characteristics of the national presidency demand that one individual hold all executive authority. When war and peace are at stake, it is especially important that the country speak with one voice so that our friends and enemies hear us clearly. And in the same way that spreading authority across multiple institutions slows the pace of action when a rapid response is required, dispersing authority among multiple executives might do so as well. Even if foreign relations or being commander in chief requires that a single individual exercise ultimate control, nothing in this view implies that a single executive should have control over all other executive authority. It means only that each individual policy of this sort should be controlled by one executive official. The claims about rapid response or speaking with one voice—even if correct—mean merely that one executive should have exclusive policy jurisdiction within the policy dimension, but not necessarily across policy dimensions. Indeed, voters might wish to remove the War Executive failed war without replacing the Economic Policy Executive who was competently overseeing economic growth. When the two offices are bundled together under a single executive, voters must make a single elect-reject decision in the next election. If the Defense Executive were directly elected, voters could express displeasure over the war without rejecting a President who was succeeding on many other dimensions.
Energy. Energy is another important principle used to support the single executive and later the unitary executive. Many of the framers were explicitly concerned with designing a national executive with sufficient energy, fearing a national government that was too weak would crumble. In Federalist No. 37, for example, Madison argued that “[e]nergy in Government is essential to that security against external and internal danger, and to that prompt and salutary execution of the laws, which enter into the very definition of good Government.” The trouble with this view is that there is slippage between the claim that one individual with control over one policy will be optimally energetic and the conclusion that one individual with control over all relevant policies will be optimally energetic. We are aware of no especially compelling reason that a single executive with authority over j policy dimensions would be more energetic—in the parlance of the founders—than j executives each of whom has exclusive responsibility for one dimension.
Powers and Branches. If energy alone does not justify a single executive, perhaps the background separation of powers in the constitutional structure does indirectly. In order for each branch to guard against infractions by the others, maybe a single executive is required. It is a conceptual mistake, however, to equate strength with a lack of numerosity. Three executives who cannot agree are surely weaker than one executive, but three executives of similar mind, acting in consort, are not obviously so. If the question is how well a given executive structure would be able to patrol and protect the borders of its authority, there is no particularly good reason to suspect a single executive would more aggressively protect her purview over j policy dimensions, than would j executives each of whom has responsibility for protecting one policy dimension. If anything, unbundling authority in this way might create stronger incentives for protecting turf because the proportional losses to a given executive would be greater from Congressional incursion.
We do not claim that the most sensible or even any plausible reading of the U.S. Constitution establishes a plural unbundled executive; but perhaps it should. The plural executive position has long been lampooned in constitutional theory. We suggest it should be lampooned somewhat less.