Presidents, Legislatures, and the Exercise of Unilateral Executive Power in Latin America

This study develops a differential theory of unilateral presidential action based on the relative strengths of the president and the legislature. It argues that given the proliferation of administrative duties carried out by non-U.S. chief executives via decree, their formal presidential power and ambition has little to do with the exercise of unilateral action. Instead, an increase in formal presidential power should only increase the number of decrees issued with legislative intent. By contrast, a stronger legislature should reduce the total number of decrees as well as those with legislative intent. I test these hypotheses with an original collection of over 75,000 content-coded presidential decrees from eleven Latin American countries between 1993 and 2013, and a series of count models. Consistent with the theoretical prediction, presidential power has a trivial effect on total decrees issued, while contrary to expectations, it exercises a strong negative effect on policy decrees issued. Consistent with expectations, however, legislative power has a consistently negative influence on unilateral action, no matter the type of decree under consideration. Among other things, these results suggest that a more effective way for institutional designers to limit presidential power is not necessarily to weaken presidents’ formal power, but to strengthen legislatures.

John Polga Hecimovich /US Naval Academy