Tag Archives: policy-making

Ben Noble – Presidential proxies: Cloaked law-making in contemporary Russia

This is a guest post by Ben Noble (University of Oxford)

The Russian newspaper Vedomosti recently reported something that may strike many as rather odd. Drawing on a range of internal sources, the paper claimed that the Russian Presidential Administration was increasingly using members of the Federation Council – the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly, whose members are colloquially referred to as “senators” – to introduce bills into the federal legislature.

This use of senators as law-making proxies is puzzling because of the President’s formal law-making powers: According to article 104, section 1 of the Russian Constitution, the President of the Russian Federation has the “power to initiate legislation”. In practice, this means the President has the authority to introduce bills into the State Duma – the lower chamber of the Federal Assembly, and the entry point for all legislative initiatives.

In spite of this power – and in spite of the President’s centrality in policy decision-making – Russian Presidents have been responsible for a surprisingly small proportion of introduced bills. Figure 1 presents information on the formal sponsorship of bills introduced into the Duma. From 2012 to the middle of 2015, Dmitrii Medvedev and Vladimir Putin were responsible for a clear minority of bills, outnumbering only initiatives sponsored by the higher courts and the Federation Council.

Notes: These figures are taken from Analiz prokhozhdeniya zakonoproektov v Gosudarstvennoi Dume po itogam vesennei sessii 2015 goda, page four (Apparat Gosudarstvennoi Dumy Federal’nogo Sobraniya Rossiiskoi Federatsii, 2015). This figure is taken from a forthcoming co-authored chapter with Ekaterina Schulmann.[1]

There is evidence that the Kremlin has used Duma deputies in the past to cloak its law-making activities. For example, a bill introduced into the legislature in September 2014 proposing state compensation for Russian citizens “unjustly” affected by the decisions of foreign courts was, although formally sponsored by Duma deputy Vladimir Ponevezhskii, actually drafted by lawyers from the State Legal Directorate – a unit within the Presidential Administration. Similarly, it seems that a bill branding NGOs that received foreign financing and carried out “political activities” as “foreign agents” was written by the Kremlin’s Domestic Policy Directorate. More generally, there is also anecdotal evidence of the Directorate using particular deputies as its proxies.[2] This use of proxies means, of course, that the Presidential Administration is responsible for a larger proportion of bills than indicated in Figure 1.

But why would the Kremlin want to hide the origins and real sponsors of these legislative initiatives? There are at least two clear rationales. The first is that proxy sponsors allow the Presidential Administration to introduce bills without running the risk of coming under criticism in case the initiatives prove unpopular. In the case of “unjust” foreign court decisions, this initiative was portrayed by some commentators as an attempt to protect the interests of Russia’s economic elite at the expense of tax-paying citizens. In the end, the bill was rejected in second reading in the Duma on 21 April 2017 – a fate nearly unheard of for bills formally sponsored by the President. The second rationale is that proxy sponsors help increase the legitimacy of initiatives. The “foreign agents” bill, for example, was formally introduced under the names of 243 Duma deputies, helping to sustain a narrative that this was a measure supported by the Russian people, rather than merely the political leadership.

What, in turn, explains the shift from the Kremlin’s use of Duma deputies to senator proxies? This, most probably, stems from strained relations between the Presidential Administration and the new leadership of the State Duma. Vyacheslav Volodin was elected chairman of the Duma in October 2016 at the beginning of the lower chamber’s seventh convocation, following elections in September. Volodin set about to implement a series of reforms aimed at, inter alia, reducing the Presidential Administration’s ability to direct legislative politics – something Volodin himself is aware of from his time as first deputy chief of staff in the Presidential Administration.[3] In attempting to increase the Duma’s independence, it seems that Volodin has complicated relations with the Kremlin in general, and his successor, Sergei Kirienko, in particular. By contrast, the Federation Council and its chair, Valentina Matvienko, are more predictable partners for the Presidential Administration.

There is another reason, however, why the Kremlin might now prefer to use senator proxies. In the Duma, all deputies might soon be required to inform their party leadership about their intention to introduce a bill. The goal of this proposed change is, it seems, to prevent Government ministries using deputies to introduce initiatives. Ministries do this when, for example, they have been unable to secure the consent of other ministries to introduce the bill under the Government’s formal imprimatur. Under the proposed new system, bills from the Presidential Administration, but introduced by deputy proxies, could be held up in this pre-introduction sign-off process in the Duma. By contrast, bills sponsored by Federation Council members will not have to undergo this screening process. Although this change has not yet been introduced into the lower chamber’s standing orders, the ‘party of power’, United Russia, has already introduced pre-introduction screening procedures, making senator proxies a more attractive proposition.

The use of proxies to cloak law-making is something that does not fit the conventional picture of “rubber stamp” parliaments – a label that has been used frequently for the Russian Federal Assembly in recent years. However, legislative politics in systems of executive dominance can, it seems, involve a complex dance, with masks, smoke, and mirrors.


[1] B. Noble and E. Schulmann. Forthcoming. ‘Parliament and the legislative decision-making process.’ In D. Treisman (ed.), The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[2] B. Noble and E. Schulmann. Forthcoming. ‘Parliament and the legislative decision-making process.’ In D. Treisman (ed.), The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[3] B. Noble. Forthcoming. ‘The State Duma, the “Crimean Consensus”, and Volodin’s reforms.’ In A. Barbashin, F. Burkhardt, and O. Irisova (eds), Russia: Three Years After Crimea. Warsaw: The Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding.

Ben Noble (benjamin.noble@politics.ox.ac.uk, @Ben_H_Noble) is the Herbert Nicholas Junior Research Fellow in Politics at New College, University of Oxford. He is also a Senior Researcher in the Laboratory of Regional Policy Studies at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. His doctoral dissertation examining executive law-making in the Russian State Duma was awarded the 2017 Sir Walter Bagehot Prize by the Political Studies Association. From September 2017, he will be a Lecturer in Russian Politics at University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies.


Justin Vaughn – Presidential policy czars

This is a guest post by Justin Vaughn, Associate Professor of Political science at Boise State University

One of the more surprising controversies early in the first term of Barack Obama was his alleged over-reliance on so-called czars. Although consensus about what constitutes a czar and precisely how many the president was using was elusive, a fair number of the chattering class – particularly those on AM radio airwaves – were quite convinced that the new president was seeding his administration with nefarious staffers hell-bent on achieving his agenda while thwarting both Congress and the U.S. Constitution in the process.

Distracted by the colorful and provocative label ‘czar,’ many lost sight of what it is that these staffers actually do. Czar is a metaphor, one most accurately applied to key, typically high-level managers in the White House who coordinate operations across various organizations in and out of government that are involved in salient, frequently crisis, policy efforts. Almost as a rule these positions tend to be short-term administrative band-aids, necessary because of the ever-more complex nature of White House governance and the broader political system.

Inspired by the sudden attention being paid to an otherwise overlooked bureaucratic and rhetorical phenomenon, we set out to understand how and why presidents use czars, the consequences of this usage, and what we might learn about what separates the best czars from the worst.

The result of our efforts is the book Czars in the White House: The Rise of Policy Czars as a Presidential Management Tool (University of Michigan Press, 2015). In it, we attempt to set aside the myths and mistaken assumptions about presidential policy czars and instead pursue an objective inquiry into whether and why presidents have increasingly relied upon czars to execute their policy agendas and what factors shape the success those czars might have in doing so.

To do so, we identify the leading examples of czars over the past several decades, and use in-depth analyses of them to not only identify the trajectory of czar politics but also what separates successful czars from those who are less so. These examples include: the drug czar, a position that has existed in various forms since the Hoover Administration but became institutionalized in the manner we know today in 1989; the energy czar of the 1970s; the AIDS czars of the 1990s and, to a lesser extent, today; George W. Bush’s post-9/11 czars (e.g., Homeland Security, National Intelligence, and Iraq/Afghanistan War), and Barack Obama’s prominent domestic policy czars.

In the course of these investigations, we find that although every czarship is distinct, motivated by different goals and operating in different contexts, there are some important continuities across time, policy area, and political climate that future czars and the presidents who appoint them alike should consider when determining what is required for a czar to be successful. We identify four key determinants of czar success from our analyses; these include: clarity, expertise, analysis, and access.

In a perfect world – or at least one where a successful czar is an objectively good thing – a president would select an individual who had expertise in both the substantive area in question and managerial experience. The president would also give that person a clear mission to accomplish while communicating to other influential individuals within the administration and the broader bureaucracy that this person speaks with the authority of the president, and then back them up when the czar was inevitably challenged by another disgruntled stakeholder. Finally, the president would give the czar reasonable opportunity to assess the problem and analyze best practices moving forward before implementing potentially half-baked solutions, and then ensure the czar had clear access to them throughout the duration of the crisis that lead to their appointment. Whereas the president largely can’t shape the political context that will encompass the czar’s experience, they can make certain these central factors are present.

It is in the interest of the president to do so, of course, as previous failures in czar leadership can be tied back directly to the absence of these conditions. For example, Bill Clinton’s trio of AIDS czars, widely seen as ineffective and occasionally irrelevant, had very little access to the president, something at least one of them brought to the attention of the president’s chief of staff as they sought to improve the fortunes of their successor. Similarly, czars lacking either substantive expertise or managerial experience find themselves at a disadvantage. George W. Bush’s Intelligence Czar, John Negroponte, was widely known and had tremendous experience as a diplomat, but virtually no experience with the intelligence community. Unsurprisingly, he was unable to bring order to the chaotic intelligence apparatus he inherited. Jerome Jaffe, Richard Nixon’s drug czar from 1971-73, had the opposite problem: he had exceptional public health and drug treatment credentials, but was woefully inexperienced when it came to management. The result of this inexperience was organizational drift that had far-reaching consequences on the way the United States began and continues to wage the war on drugs.

Conversely, situations where presidents ensured the kinds of situations we suggested as ideal above found themselves with czars who made great headway in managing the policy crises they were chosen to corral. For example, William Simon, who ultimately may have been the most effective czar in American history, was instrumental to weathering the energy crisis in early 1974 in large part because of the enormous authority Nixon gave him, even if the president did make the curious and ill-advised comparison to Nazi armaments minister Albert Speer when he introduced Simon in his new capacity as energy czar to the rest of the Cabinet.

The research presented in Czars in the White House leads us to the conclusions that not only was the furor over Barack Obama’s alleged over-reliance on czars at the start of his presidency over-stated, but that the general narrative of increasing presidential reliance in general is also inaccurate. That said, at key moments of political and policy crisis, czars have been important players in the modern presidency, and as the presidency continues to become the focal point of American national governance, this will continue to be the case. And as long as czars are charged with coordinating the executive branch’s response to salient policy problems, it will matter a great deal how successful they are in doing so.

That said, performance effectiveness is not the only useful way of thinking about czars. There are equally valid concerns about presidential usage of czar coordinators, and other political scientists have done well to raise them. Although we shy away from allegations such as those that suggest czars represent a significant threat to constitutional integrity and undermine the legitimacy of Congress, we do agree that the occasional but consistent for presidents to find clever and entrepreneurial administrative solutions to the ongoing problems of organizational complexity and cross-cutting jurisdiction in the federal bureaucracy in general and the Executive Office of the Presidency more specifically indicates that the presidency itself is underserved by an outdated Twentieth Century organizational apparatus, and that new and bold ways of thinking about the administrative presidency are needed as we continue to sail into the Twenty First.

VaughnJustin Vaughn is Associate Professor of Political science at Boise State University. A scholar of the American presidency, he focuses particularly on the rhetorical and administrative dimensions of that office. In addition to Czars in the White House, he has published three other books and several journal articles in outlets including Political Research Quarterly, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and Public Administration. He is currently at work on a book project about the rise and consequences of the post-rhetorical presidency.

jdvillalobosJosé Villalobos is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at El Paso. His research on the American presidency centers on presidential management/policy making and the public presidency. He is also interested in studies on race/ethnicity and immigration. Aside from Czars in the White House, he has published numerous journal articles in Political Research Quarterly, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Public Administration, Administration & Society, and other venues.

Magna Inácio and Mariana Llanos – The Institutional Presidency in Argentina and Brazil

This is a guest post by Magna Inácio and Mariana Llanos from the Universidad Federal de Minas Gerais and GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies respectively

It is based on the following article recently published by the authors: INACIO, Magna and LLANOS, Mariana. The Institutional Presidency from a Comparative Perspective: Argentina and Brazil since the 1980s. Bras. Political Sci. Rev. [online]. 2015, vol.9, n.1, pp. 39-64. Available here.

Even the most influential chief executives need the political support and technical assistance of trusted advisors, technical staff, and government agencies. The scholarly literature has documented the increasing centralization of authority around the person of the chief executive and the steady movement toward the institutional reinforcement of the political core executive as developments that have taken place in most advanced industrial countries in the last forty to fifty years. Students of the United States’ presidency, on their part, have shown that presidents have had incentives for creating and strengthening technical, administrative, and advisory presidential support bodies both to confront critical junctures and to help face the challenges that are posed in a system characterized by separate institutions sharing powers.

In Latin America, presidents enjoy significant policy-making powers in multiple policy realms as a means to influence the legislative agenda, control the allocation of resources, appoint and dismiss thousands of different government officials, and respond directly to the demands of their electorate. However, the distinction between executive leadership and the institutional nature of the modern presidency has not been really addressed yet, despite there having been a significant expansion of studies on presidentialism. Our work sheds light on this under researched topic by focusing on the presidencies of Argentina and Brazil since redemocratization in the 1980s.

In particular, our study concentrates on the “institutional presidency”, that is, the cluster of agencies that directly support the chief executive. These agencies are part of the bureaucracy of the executive branch, but they are not located within the executive cabinet; their defining characteristic is that they operate under the direct authority of the president and are responsible for supporting the presidential leadership. Following the specialized literature, we argue that the growth of the institutional presidency is connected to developments occurring in the larger political system – that is, to the governmental and political challenges that presidents face.

Likewise, we argue that the type of executive cabinet – a factor that until now has not played a significant role in presidential studies, which are mostly based on the US case – poses various challenges to presidents and, thus, impacts differently on the structure of the presidency. Our empirical references, the presidencies of Argentina and Brazil and typical cases of single-party and coalitional presidentialism, respectively, allow us to test the impact of the aforementioned factor. In effect, we expect to find greater centralization –a shifting of the functions of the wider executive branch to the core executive – under coalition presidentialism because presidents must share cabinet positions, negotiate, and manage relations with coalition partners. In single-party governments, meanwhile, presidents can more freely assert themselves over the whole executive structure; in other words, centralization should be less necessary. Similarly, we expect the type of government to affect the types of agencies that form the institutional presidency, with coalition presidents building a more complex and varied presidential organization.


Number of Institutional Presidency Units and Core Units Argentina and Brazil, 1984–2010

To test our hypotheses we first collected information on the number of agencies under presidential authority in Argentina and Brazil per year from 1984 until 2010. Our data show reverse developments having taken place over these years, where the institutional presidency has at times been expanded and at other times reduced – and we thus inquire into the causes of such evolutions. We then estimated the effects of a set of political variables on those agency developments: we included the type of executive cabinet, and the extent of political support for the president, among other political and economic control variables. Our assumption was that the institutional presidency grows in response to the constraints of a political environment that can be a potential challenge to the presidential leadership. Our findings confirm our expectations. The regression analysis shows that as the number of parties in the cabinet increases, so does the size of the institutional presidency. It is also confirmed that when governing parties hold a legislative majority the number of presidential units decreases. Among the contextual variables, the model shows that economic reforms pose risks to presidents that translate into incentives to enlarge the institutional presidency.

Agency movements have not only affected the size of the institutional presidency but also the types of agencies that form it. Our analysis shows that the monolithic Brazilian presidency of the 1980s has since been substituted by an internally differentiated and specialized institution, including a diversity of policy units, advisory bodies, and the strengthening of core units –those supporting administrative, legal, and institutional tasks. Instead, in Argentina, the internal makeup of the presidency is today less differentiated, as important functions such as coordination haven been decentralized in the wider executive.

In short, our analysis provides evidence indicating that the type of government – coalitional or single-party – matters, for the variations in the architecture of the presidency. This is both a hitherto unexplored area of research vis-à-vis Latin America and an interesting agenda for the presidential literature in the future.


Magna. InacioMagna Inácio is an associate professor at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG). Her research interests include coalition governments, the institutional presidency, and legislative parties. Currently, her research is concerned with the institutional development of the Presidency in Brazil and Latin American. She has published co-edited books: Legislativo Brasileiro em Perspectiva Comparada (with Lúcio Rennó). (Ed. UFMG); Elites Parlamentares na America Latina. (Argvmentvm Ed, 2009) and chapters in “Algo más que Presidentes. El papel del Poder Legislativo en América Latina”. (co-edited by Manoel Alcantara Saez e Mercedes Garcia; Fundación Manuel Gimenez Abad 2011); O Congresso por Ele Mesmo. (edited by Timothy Powers e Cesar Zucco; Ed. UFMG 2011). She has published in journals such as America Latina Hoy and Jounal of Politics in Latin America. E-mail: magna.inacio@gmail.com.

llanos_1503Mariana Llanos is a Senior Research Fellow at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies. Her main research field is comparative political institutions, especially in Latin America. She has worked on presidentialism, presidential breakdowns, president-congress relations, president-judiciary relations, judicial appointments. She is also currently working on the institutional presidency in comparative perspective. Full details of all her publications and current porject can be found here.