Tall, Grande, or Venti: Presidential Powers in the United States and Latin America

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In determining policy outcomes, constitutions vary in endowments they grant their presidents. Beyond these formal powers, presidents also have associated and informal tools to help them implement their agendas. These are complemented by non-formal forces and mechanisms, such as the presidents' partisan powers, a lack of resources, and collective action problems, that limit legislatures' abilities to resist presidential initiatives,. In this paper we argue that these informal and associated mechanisms reinforce presidents in these bargaining games. We argue further that due to decreasing marginal returns, while informal and associated powers are important everywhere, they take special import where constitutions, like that of the United States, grant presidents only weak formal powers.

Our review of unilateral actions by executives in Latin American the United States showed that while many presidents in the former do have stronger formal and reinforced powers, the U.S. president also has many tools and advantages over the legislature. If this constitutionally weak president has such powers, then perhaps comparative studies should recalibrate their scales, focusing only on range from medium to high; low seems an inappropriate label.

Since there seems relative agreement that concentrating too much power in the presidency is dangerous to the quality, if not the stability, of democracy, several countries have already initiated reforms to address the executive-legislative imbalance. Several areas seem ripe for further reform. First, legislatures require more resources and further professionalization. This perhaps justifies international aid and domestic efforts dedicated to modernizing legislatures' technical capabilities and training legislators and their professional staffs. Still, the U.S. experience suggests that even with extensive resources, oversight might be haphazard.

Second, both the United States and Latin American countries should reconsider the issue of legislative vetoes. Even if the legislature has the capacity to oversee executive decisions, if overturning them requires a veto-proof majority of the Congress, then the balance is decidedly in favor of the executive. Since there is also a concern that presidents need the ability to act quickly in response to emergencies, perhaps the Brazilian decree rule, whereby the Congress must either convert the decree to law or it loses validity, would be a good starting point. That type of law could allow the desired governability without significantly degrading the representative system.

Third, the budgetary limitations on many Latin American legislatures are incompatible with the division of powers. If the legislatures are prevented from even considering how to collect and distribute public moneys, then the legislature becomes little more than a forum for debate or a rubber stamp. xxx

Finally, the lack of judicial independence and judicial review has helped Latin American presidents consolidate power, suggesting that judicial reforms could help to limit presidential powers. Many Latin American countries have undertaken significant judicial reforms, and some courts now do have the power to negate laws and decrees. However, without beefing up the legislature and eliminating the restrictions on their abilities to legislate, the judicial reforms cannot redress the executive-legislative balance.


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FIGURE 1: The Scope and Force of Executive Powers

FIGURE 2. Unilateral Presidential Directives in the U.S. (1993-2011)

FIGURE 3. Comparison of unilateral directives in the U.S. and eight Latin American countries

Note: Case selection based on data availability; Argentina excluded for scaling purposes, since more than one thousand were issued every year

Sources: Agencia Boliviana de Información (http://www3.abi.bo/); Presidencia da República Federativa do Brasil (http://www4.planalto.gov.br/legislacao/legislacao-1/decretos1#content); Presidencia de Colombia (http://web.presidencia.gov.co/decretoslinea/); Sistema de Información para la Gobernabilidad, Ecuador (http://www.sigob.gob.ec/); Secretaría General de la Presidencia de Guatemala (http://www.sgp.gob.gt/Acuerdos.htm); Justicia Nicaragua (http://nicaragua.justia.com/nacionales/decretos-ejecutivos/); National Archives and Records Administration (http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/executive-orders/disposition.html); Presidencia de la República Oriental de Uruguay (http://archivo.presidencia.gub.uy/); Tribunal Supremo de Justicia de Venezuela (http://www.tsj.gov.ve/gaceta/gacetaoficial.asp)

TABLE 1. Examples of Formal and Reinforced Scope and Force*

United States

Latin America

Formal Scope

Constitutional decree powers

Delegated decree powers

Urgency provisions

Exclusive executive initiative for tax or spending bills

Reinforced Scope

Leadership of congressional delegation

Executive Orders

Asserted decree powers, perhaps backed by court decisions

Presidential Memoranda

Declaration of State of Emergency

Presidential Proclamations

Control of cabinet ministers

National Security Directives

Presidential Signing Statements

Central legislative clearance

Recess appointments

Legislative reliance on executive for technocratic expertise

Formal Force

Veto powers

Reinforced Force

Lack of legislative veto

Time limitation on legislation

Judicial review

Partisan powers/control of legislative majority

Congressional collective action problem

Public addresses/public opinion

Bureaucratic control/Ability to delay implementation

Note: The examples for Latin America are not universal. Among others, decree, urgency, budgetary provisions, and veto powers vary widely, as do the presidents' control over legislative majorities and the independence of constitutional courts to enforce judicial review.

TABLE 2: U.S. Executive Orders


Number of Orders


Roosevelt 1933-1945



Truman 1945-1953



Eisenhower 1953-1961



Kennedy 1961-1963



Johnson 1963-1969



Nixon 1969-1974



Ford 1974-1977



Carter 1977-1981



Reagan 1981-1989



Bush 1989-1993



Clinton 1993-2001



Bush 2001- 2009



Obama 2009-Dec. 2011



Source: National Archives and Records Administration


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