Meredith McLain

Ph.D. Candidate at Vanderbilt University


“Executive Unilateralism and Individual Rights in a Federalist System.” (with Sharece Thrower) William and Mary Law Review Journal (29 (3): 713-74) [Download Paper]

Presidents have a wide array of tools at their disposal to unilaterally influence public policy, without the direct approval of Congress or the courts. These unilateral actions have the potential to affect a variety of individual rights, either profitably or adversely. Governors too can employ unilateral directives for similar purposes, often impacting an even wider range of rights. In this Article, we collect all executive orders and memoranda related to individual rights issued between 1981 and 2018 at the federal level, and across the U.S. states, to analyze their use over time. We find that chief executives of all kinds are more likely to issue unilateral directives that expand individual rights if they are Democratic or liberal and when there is a public appetite for rights advancement. Furthermore, governors issue more rights-related directives when they view Presidents as likely to be restrictive or inactive on individual rights.

Working Papers

“Presidential Policymaking in the Face of Congressional Sanctioning” (Job Market Paper) [Download Paper]

Do presidents freely issue unilateral directives to evade an obstructionist Congress, or are they constrained by their legislative opponents? Though conventional wisdom purports evasion, scholars actually find consistent evidence of presidential restraint. This literature almost exclusively focuses on executive orders, rather than the myriad of other unilateral directives at the president’s disposal, and thus offers an incomplete picture of how effective Congress is at constraining unilateral policymaking. Accordingly, I develop a new theory of how presidents adjudicate between different types of directives based on the trade-offs related to their visibility, presidential incentives, and Congress’s ability to retaliate based on available information. I argue that presidents rely on more visible unilateral directives when facing ideologically aligned Congress that are less likely to retaliate. But they use less visible directives, like unpublished memoranda, to evade legislative opponents, but at the expense of credit claiming opportunities and bureaucratic compliance. Using an original dataset of executive orders, published memoranda, and unpublished memoranda issued between 1981 and 2020, I find empirical support for the theory. Overall, this study demonstrates how presidents can overcome legislative checks by controlling the visibility of their unilateral activities.

“Preaching to the Choir: Agency Composition and Unilateral Action Use” (with Christopher Piper) [Download Paper]

The increasing prevalence of vacancies in presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed (PAS) positions and the increased reliance of presidents on unilateral action are two notable features of the most recent presidential administrations. While extensive research has examined these trends in isolation, scholars have been slow to unpack the consequences of vacancies for unilateral action. This paper explains how vacancies affect the president’s decision to use executive orders and executive memoranda and how the effect of vacancies will be moderated under certain conditions. It evaluates its claims with new data on appointee vacancies and unilateral action, both executive orders and executive memoranda, during the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. This analysis provides insight into the incentives and constraints presidents face when issuing unilateral action and the broader effect of vacancies on the administrative presidency.

Research in Progress

“Public Preferences and Presidential Policymaking”

Though the unilateral politics literature mostly fixates on congressional constraints, recent scholarship doubts its efficacy and instead touts the public as the most effective barrier to presidential power. This literature, however, produces mixed findings as to whether the public actually restrains unilateralism or whether presidents might use more unilateral directives to rally support. I argue that these often-conflicting results are, at least in part, due to studies exclusively examining the public’s approval of the president without accounting for the direction or strength of its specific policy preferences. Accordingly, this paper develops a new theory of how presidents’ alignment with the public’s policy preferences, and the salience of those issues, influences their strategies for selecting more or less traceable unilateral directives. Using a policy area-year dataset, I am able to produce precise, fine-grained measures of these key concepts.

“Presidential Unilateralism and the Risk of Bureaucratic Non-Compliance”

Scholarship on executive unilateralism largely assumes that presidents act alone, without accounting for the role of bureaucratic actors. Through recent studies examine agencies’ role in the formation of executive orders, the broader literature has yet to fully explore agency implementation of unilateral directives and how it shapes presidential decision-making. In this paper, I develop a theory of how presidents consider the likelihood of bureaucratic compliance, based on factors such as policy complexity and ideological alignment, when acting unilaterally. As the risk of bureaucratic non-compliance increases, presidents are more likely to achieve their policy goals through highly traceable directives that give agencies clearer guidance and place greater public pressure on them to implement. This relationship is amplified when presidents have additional support from Congress and the public. On the other hand, presidents opt for less traceable directives when agencies are more prone to follow their orders, especially if the policy change would be opposed by other external actors. To test these predictions, I use the policy-year level dataset of unilateral directives to identify the agency primarily responsible for implementation and match that information to other agency-level characteristics, like ideology, expertise, and politicization.