In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Congressional Reassertion of Authority

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reassertion as Oversight
  • Lawmaking and Reassertion
  • Reassertion and the Presidency

Political Science Congressional Reassertion of Authority
Justin Peck
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0100


By overseeing the creation of a large administrative apparatus and professional civil service, legislators provided themselves with new strategies for both policymaking and policy implementation. Most notably, members of Congress could now delegate—or transfer—decision-making authority from the legislature itself to policy experts working within administrative agencies that are generally lodged within the executive branch. In recent years, political scientists have identified the conditions that lead members to delegate, they have identified those policy areas where delegation is most attractive, and they have illustrated the policy consequences of delegation. Yet, delegation of policymaking authority is never permanent. And while we know a great deal about how, when, and why members opt to empower agencies, we know comparatively little about the conditions that generate reassertion, or formal attempts by Congress to capture, or recapture, powers exercised by the executive or to reform itself internally in order to better rival executive branch authority. The focus throughout this article will, therefore, be on reassertion. Works by those who approach reassertion from formal, rational choice are identified as well as sources that provide historical perspectives. Also, because political scientists have neglected this form of interbranch contestation, it will make clear how the work of those writing on delegation, lawmaking, separation of powers, and the presidency help to inform a full understanding of congressional reassertion.

General Overviews

The introductory works below utilize formal theory, rational choice, and qualitative methodologies to examine legislative reassertion. Bendor and Meirowitz 2004 utilizes a formal model to identify the conditions under which reassertion becomes attractive while Volden 2002 uses a model to stipulate the conditions under which reassertion legislation is most likely to pass Congress. Schickler 2001 and Mayhew 2000 combine qualitative and rational choice techniques to demonstrate that reassertion motivates intra-congressional reform efforts at different moments in congressional history and makes possible “opposition activities” through which members work to oppose the White House. Finally, Davidson and Oleszek 1976 and Sundquist 1981 each provide detailed qualitative examinations of the reassertion efforts that took place through the 1970s as Congress worked to enhance executive branch oversight, to bolster its budgetary powers, to limit the president’s war power, and to ensure that intra-institutional organization allowed Congress to defend itself from executive branch encroachment.

  • Bendor, Jonathan, and Adam Meirowitz. “Spatial Models of Delegation.” American Political Science Review 98 (2004): 293–310.

    Utilizing a formal model, the authors extend the transaction costs model proposed in Epstein and O’Halloran 1999 (cited under General Theories of Delegation) by relaxing important assumptions. In so doing, they identify the conditions under which reassertion occurs, namely when the agent being delegated to is no longer perceived as an ally and when the costs of gathering information relevant to the delegated authorities rise to an unacceptable level.

  • Davidson, Roger H., and Walter J. Oleszek. “Adaptation and Consolidation: Structural Innovation in the US House of Representatives.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 1 (1976): 37–65.

    DOI: 10.2307/439627

    Through an historical analysis of three innovations proposed by the House Committee on Committees in 1974, the authors identify one central reassertion strategy: institutional consolidation. By consolidation they mean reforms designed to relieve “internal stresses” in order to allow Congress to better contest the executive branch.

  • Mayhew, David R. America’s Congress: Actions in the Public Sphere, James Madison through Newt Gingrich. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

    Mayhew identifies a congressional “opposition activity” as one in which a member seeks to directly undermine the administrative and political power of an individual president. The motivation for such behavior is directly relevant to a discussion of reassertion.

  • Schickler, Eric. Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation and the Development of the US Congress. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

    Schickler identifies reassertion as one in a series of individual member motivations that can catalyze congressional reform efforts. Through a detailed historical analysis of different reform periods, Schicker demonstrates that members’ collective interest in protecting congressional prerogatives from an aggrandizing executive appears as a force motivating intra-institutional reform. His analysis also demonstrates how successful reforms layer atop one another, thereby ensuring that early reform efforts work to influence those that come later.

  • Sundquist, James L. The Decline and Resurgence of Congress. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1981.

    Sundquist provides a textbook analysis of reassertion. His analysis focuses on legislative reassertion efforts in the 1970s, but he identifies the various ways in which Congress delegated power to the executive in the years prior to the presidency of Richard Nixon and then fought to win it back during and after Nixon.

  • Volden, Craig. “A Formal Model of the Politics of Delegation in a Separation of Powers System.” American Journal of Political Science 46 (2002): 111–133.

    DOI: 10.2307/3088417

    Like Bendor and Meirowitz 2004, Volden amends the transaction costs delegation model proposed in Epstein and O’Halloran 1999 (cited under General Theories of Delegation). His updated model identifies the conditions under which reassertion laws will pass Congress. Most importantly, he argues that, without sizeable majorities in support of reassertion, members of Congress will need to include provisions designed to keep the president from vetoing a potential reassertion bill.

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