Meredith McLain

Ph.D. Candidate at Vanderbilt University

I’m a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Vanderbilt University and a graduate student affiliate of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI).

My research interests include American political institutions, separation of power politics, presidential unilateral policymaking, executive branch politics, and congressional oversight.

My dissertation examines presidents’ use of unilateral actions to influence policy. Amid incessant inter-branch stalemates and forceful assertions of executive authority, many fear presidents freely wield unilateral directives to create policy without legislative approval. Political scientists, however, largely find that presidents are constrained when issuing executive orders. But few studies investigate the reasons underlying this constraint or whether it manifests for other types of directives. Accordingly, this dissertation develops a theory of how presidents strategically select between distinct unilateral directives, based on differences in their transparency and the information Congress, the public, and agencies have to respond. Using data on all executive orders, published memoranda, and unpublished memoranda between 1981 and 2020, I test the theory‚Äôs predictions across three empirical chapters corresponding to the constraints imposed by each of these political actors. Further, I leverage variation across unilateral directives based on their publication in the Federal Register, media coverage, issue salience, and publicity from the White House. Overall, I find that presidents deploy less visible directives when facing political resistance, but engage in more public-facing unilateralism when such constraints are absent and their incentives to credit claim are high. Overall, this dissertation offers an explanation for when and why presidents are constrained, based on the trade-offs between their different unilateral strategies. Importantly, it demonstrates how exactly presidents can still powerfully impact policy, even in the face of fierce legislative, public, and bureaucratic opposition.

Before Vanderbilt, I earned my BA in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 2018.