Featured Author: James P. Pfiffner

PSQ prides itself on publishing scholarship created by the best and brightest in their respective fields. To highlight some of these exciting contributors and provide an in-depth look at the broader work our authors do, we bring you our Featured Author interview series.


Our December 2015 featured author is James P. Pfiffner, University Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University. He specializes in American political institutions with an emphasis on the relationship between the executive and legislative branches, as well as the importance of elite personality within institutions.

To contact Professor Pfiffner or find out more about his work, visit his faculty webpage or email him at pfiffner@gmu.edu.

Q: What initially sparked your interest in constitutional power?

A: As a political scientist, I am interested in power and how it is exercised. When I was a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1970s, President Nixon was challenging the congressional power of the purse by impounding (that is, not spending) funds that had been provided by Congress. I became fascinated by this struggle for power and wrote my dissertation on the issue, which then raised the broader question of how polities can limit executive power.

Throughout history, in order for humans to live in societies and states, someone has to provide internal and external security (police and military power). The necessary security apparatus is virtually always controlled by a chief executive. The problem, of course, is how can a polity assure that the executive who controls the means of physical coercion does not abuse that power and become a tyrant?

The framers of the US Constitution had a historical perspective that led them to believe that chief executives often abused their power and became tyrants. So they tried to write a Constitution that would preclude the concentration of too much power in either the legislature or the executive.

Q: What are the key questions in the study of the president and constitutional power?

A: In the 20th and 21st centuries, with two world wars, the Cold War, many minor wars, and especially the aftermath of 9/11, the US chief executive has accumulated more power in national security.  This is understandable and some of it inevitable. Nevertheless, the Framers’ insight that executives predictably seek more power still rings true.  So the question is, given the necessary power that presidents need, how can the United States remain a democratic republic and adhere to the principles of the Constitution, with its division of authority among the branches?

The Framers designed the Constitution with the premise that ambition must be made to counteract ambition, but they did not foresee the rise of political parties.  Though parties may be inevitable and essential to democracy, the recent polarization of parties in the United States has undermined the separation of power system.

Members of Congress from each party seem to value the success of the president of  their own party and the failure of the president of the other party, more than the interests of Congress as an institution.  Too often, this results in gridlock to the point that the United States cannot maintain fundamental governance functions, such as passing budgets or appointing leaders to the executive branch.  Given the extent of this polarization, the key constitutional question facing the United States is how we can remain true to the principles of the Constitution and our separation of powers system?

Q: What kind of response do you hope your work elicits from your readers? Ideally, what kind of critical thought do you hope your article inspires?

A: What I try to do in my scholarship is to adduce empirical evidence around a theoretical argument for my interpretation of US constitutional principles and demonstrate the relevance of my argument to presidential behavior.  Fundamentally, this is a normative process, but I hope to base my normative judgments on sound empirical bases.  For those who agree with my analyses, I hope that I provide coherent arguments with which they can identify.  For those who disagree with my arguments, I hope that I have been fair enough to their arguments that they will admit that, even if they disagree with my conclusions, I have made a reasonable case.