by J. David Alvis, Jeremy D. Bailey, and F. Flagg Taylor IV. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013. 260pp. Cloth $34.95. ISBN: 0700619224.

Reviewed by Zachary Callen, Department of Political Science, Allegheny College. Email: zcallen [at]


In THE CONTESTED REMOVAL POWER, J. David Alvis, Jeremy D. Bailey, and F. Flagg Taylor IV consider the intellectual and political history of the president’s ability to remove executive agents. The Constitution makes it clear that the president should consult with Congress in making certain appointments. However, what remains ambiguous is what the president’s responsibility to Congress is when attempting to remove those same officers. The removal power is significant as it determines control over the bureaucracy. At its core, the question surrounding the removal power is whether the executive or the legislative branch will determine the composition of executive branch agents and thereby direct the implementation of legislation.

Fundamentally, the debate over the removal power is a clash over the separation of powers. The authors identify four main potential arrangements between the legislative and executive branch for the removal of executive officers: impeachment, advise and consent, congressional delegation, and executive authority. In impeachment, executive officers can only be removed through a formal hearing before Congress. Advise and consent would require the president to consult with and receive Senate approval for any removal. Congressional delegation would allow the president to remove executive agents at his/her whim, but only because Congress chose to invest the executive with that power. Finally, executive authority argues that the removal power exists wholly within the executive and s/he is free to remove executive agents wholly at his/her own discretion. From first to last, the trend in these arguments moves from greater legislative authority over executive agents to presidential domination over the removal of bureaucrats.

Alvis, Bailey, and Taylor trace the origins and developments of these four arguments around the removal power from the earliest congressional debates in the late 1700s through the present day. They carefully examine the evolution of the removal power by considering congressional debates, court decisions, and presidential statements around institutional control over removing executive officers. By carefully selecting their cases, the authors successfully tell a sweeping story that spans much of American history while still engaging with the very particular details of critical moments in executive/legislative conflict over the removal power. Through this careful analysis, they remind readers of the role that horizontal federalism has played in shaping the form of the American state. Further, by detailing tensions between the executive and legislative branch, Alvis, Bailey, and Taylor also make it [*12] clear that state building is rarely a linear process. Rather, their account emphasizes that state building is a contested process that operates through fits and starts. In other words, they remind us that state building is decidedly political, rather than teleological, in form.

Overall, THE CONTESTED REMOVAL POWER is a well-researched and well-written account detailing the evolution of executive control over the removal power. The manuscript establishes that while the president has managed to gather greater control over executive staffing, Congress continues to push back on this executive dominance. Furthermore, the text emphasizes the importance of the removal power itself: control over bureaucratic personnel is also control over how policy is implemented. In that way, the removal power has profound political implications,as control over the personnel in a bureaucratic agency directly allows elected officials – whether those officials are the president or in Congress – to direct the actions of the state. Thus, there are core concerns about both political accountability in a democracy as well as the nature of separation of powers in federalism that animate this debate.

More broadly, THE CONTESTED REMOVAL POWER also has important theoretical implications for both the process by which state building occurs as well as regarding the nature of centralized authority. First, Alvis, Bailey, and Taylor make an important case for the role of legal concepts in shaping American state building. Rather than emphasizing the creation of agencies or explicit legal rules, the authors argue that state building around the removal power has instead revolved around carefully wrought constitutional arguments. It is interesting to note that the core of these arguments have remained fairly consistent across time, outside some updating and evolution on their edges. In this way, the authors stress that political ideas have a long life, and move in and out of vogue – and this shifting of political ideas goes a long way towards explaining state building. Of course, these ideas – congressional control versus a more unitary executive theory of federal power – do not gain ascendance or fall from public view on their own. Rather, these ideas are subject to intense political debate, and political figures actively deploy and develop these ideas in pursuit of their goals. In that way, THE CONTESTED REMOVAL POWER fits into a long tradition of American political development literature, ranging from HELLFIRE NATION (Morone 2003) to BELATED FEUDALISM (Orren 1992), that emphasizes the importance of ideas in American state building.

In addition to stressing the importance of ideas in American state building, however, THE CONTESTED REMOVAL POWER also provides an alternative view of how centralization occurred in the American state. Centralization, both at the federal level and within the executive branch, is a key aspect of state building (Skowronek 1982). There are a number of explanations for how the centralization of federal power has occurred, ranging from parties capturing all three branches to political compromises set off after the disruption of a social crisis (Skowronek 1982, Bensel 1991). Alvis, Bailey, and Taylor offer yet another view of how American [*13] political centralization unfolded, by stressing the legal debates and policy skirmishes between Congress and the president over the removal power.

However, while the authors make a number of strong historical and theoretical contributions to our understanding of American political development, there are a number of areas in the text that could use further elaboration. First, the analysis of the removal power could be more tightly connected to state building itself. Second, the analysis could also push both the importance of the removal power as well as the power of legal debates in state building further, to make larger claims about the American state building process. Turning to the first point, the conflict over the removal power reflects the political reality that bureaucrats possess a great deal of political latitude. Executive offices develop rules, enforce legislation, and make judgments and, despite the seeming clear-cut nature of such bureaucratic decisions, executive agents are regularly asked to independently implement policy or interpret legislation. Thus, as the American bureaucracy has grown in size and complexity, executive agents – and the choices they make – exert an increasing influence on Americans’ lives. While the text is certainly not a history of American bureaucracy, in the vein of THE FORGING OF BUREAUCRATIC AUTONOMY (Carpenter 2001), more attention to how the removal power interacts with the growing American bureaucracy would richen the analysis.

Finally, while the authors present a detailed legal history of the removal power and are able to stress the importance of ideas in state building through that narrative, the theoretical constructs of the text are never fully front and center. Both the removal power itself as well as the role of ideas in political development are core concepts in the manuscript. But, as mechanisms of state building, those concepts are underdeveloped. It would be valuable for Alvis, Bailey, and Taylor to place those ideas more fully into conversation with the American political development literature as a whole, to more fully develop both how bureaucratic control and legal ideas have shaped American state building, and to engage their own constructs with central American political development concepts such as the state or institutional change. Through a deeper theoretical discussion of these concepts, the authors could have more fully detailed the mechanism at work and thereby developed a more abstract argument that could be applied to other contexts. But, on the whole, these are minor complaints against a much larger accomplishment. Ultimately, THE CONTESTED REMOVAL POWER is an important contribution to American legal history and our understanding of American political development. By highlighting the importance of the removal power in American state building, as well as the role of legal argumentation in directing the development process, Alvis, Bailey, and Taylor offer a valuable insight into how and why political power has centralized in the executive branch.


Bensel, Richard F. 1991. YANKEE LEVIATHAN: THE ORIGINS OF CENTRAL STATE AUTHORITY IN AMERICA, 1859-1877. Cambridge: Cambridge [*14] University Press.


Morone, James A. 2003. HELLFIRE NATION: THE POLITICS OFS IN AMERICAN HISTORY. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Skowronek, Stephen. 1982. BUILDING A NEW AMERICAN STATE: THE EXPANSION OF NATIONAL ADMINISTRATIVE CAPACITIES, 1877-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Copyright 2014 by the Author, Zachary Callen.