Investigating the President: Committee Probes and Presidential Approval, 1953-2006
48 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 1 Sep 2011
Date Written: 2011
For more than fifty years, scholars have described how a unitary executive sitting at the top of an elaborate institutional hierarchy has significantly expanded presidential power. Standard portrayals of Congress, by contrast, cast it as a weak institution, beset with collective action dilemmas, transaction costs and super-majoritarian requirements, that is ill-equipped to check even brazen assertions of executive power. However, we argue that, even when Congress cannot act legislatively, the investigative reach of its committees serves as a potentially important check on presidential power. Investigations are often specifically crafted to attract sustained media attention, and they can represent genuine institutional challenges to executive actions. We argue that committee probes are able to influence presidential behavior indirectly by eroding the president’s standing among the public. Marshaling an original data set of more than 3,500 investigative hearings and over 50 years of survey data, we show that increased investigative activity in the hearing room significantly decreases the president’s job approval rating. We then supplement this observational analysis with experimental data, which both confirms our causal assertion that investigations decrease public support for the White House and shows that committee-led charges of misconduct have a greater influence on public opinion than identical charges not attributed to a congressional actor.
Keywords: Congress, investigations, presidential approval, oversight; committees
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