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Congress and the Presidency

By kcastillo Nov 08, 2008 1963 Words
The relationship between the President and Congress has been the subject of much talk and debate over the years. This relationship is affected by many things, what party is in the White House and the Congress and if they are opposition parties. Their relationship is affected by the personalities and agendas of both the President and the Leadership of the Congress and how willing they are to work together to get legislation passed. This relationship is one of constant change and controversy throughout American history. So, how does one go about comparing the relationship between congress and a president? One of the first factors in defining this relationship is establishing the party lines that exist between the White House and Capitol Hill, meaning is it a divided government or a single-party government. The next factor is what kind of legislation was passed and was the President responsible for that or was the congress. Another factor just as important was what legislation was not passed, why it was not passed, and who was responsible for that. It is also critical when comparing presidents that you compare presidents that are of the same era in American history. Comparing Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Bill Clinton and how they dealt with congress would not give an accurate picture of the relationship between Congress and the President because our country deals with issues that the congress of the 1930’s and 40’s could not have foreseen. That is why this paper will be comparing and contrasting Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and how they dealt with and related to congress.

President Bill Clinton came into the White House in 1993 and enjoyed a democratic majority in both houses. During this time Clinton received an 86.4 % success rate on roll call votes in which he took a clear position (CQ Almanac 1994 Pg 3-C). This rate is double what the first President Bush received and is one of the highest ever recorded by a president, since Congressional Quarterly started recording data. What may attribute to this high success rate? One was the fact that President Clinton was dealing with his own party in Congress and therefore makes it that much easier to deal with Congress. There was also growing partisanship in both houses of congress. This is evidenced by the fact that, House democrats supported him an average of 77% of the time and Senate Democrats supported Clinton an average of 87% of the time in 1993 (CQ Almanac 1994 3-C). Clinton in the first two years of his presidency showed willingness to work and compromise with congress, nothing made this more apparent than the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) debate. Nicholas E. Calio, Bush’s chief lobbyist, said Clinton has “worked congress very hard. You have to credit him.” House Minority leader Robert H. Michael (R-IL) is quoted saying “What [Clinton] did on NAFTA was Herculean.” Representative Michael’s comment demonstrates how hard that Clinton had to work to pass the groundbreaking piece of economic legislation trough congress (CQ Almanac 1994 3-C). In fact when Clinton went to congress to get Economic measures passed he was successful 92.3 % of the time in 1993 (CQ Almanac 1994 3-C). A third factor that attributed to a extremely high success rate in Clinton first two years was that he was the first democrat in over a decade to be elected to the White House, and the democratic congress saw there agenda blocked or diluted by veto’s. After Clinton assumed office a lot of stalled democratic legislation came out and was passed, one of the more notable being the “Motor Voter” bill, which required that voter registrations be available at all government buildings even Department of Motor Vehicles. For Clinton, 1995 brought with it a quick turn of the tables for his party, and his success rating in getting things through congress. In 1995, the democratic turned over power of both houses of congress to the republicans for the first time in almost fifty years. Clintons almost record setting success rate just the year before fell to a record setting low of 36.2 percent (CQ Almanac 1995 Pg C-3). A factor that leads to the Republican Party coming to power and Clinton’s success drop is that the Republicans under the leadership of Newt Gingrich (R-GA) became a cohesive and unified party. In fact, as Professor Morris Fiorina, from Harvard University said, “Gingrich became essentially the political personality in this country for six months. Clinton Just laid low. (CQ Almanac 1995, Pg C-3)” This caused the White House to move from offensive to defense when dealing with Capitol Hill and the new Leadership. The legislative strategy of the Clinton changed from pushing bills through congress to “using filibuster, cloture, and veto threats,” according to Patrick Griffin, top white house lobbyist (CQ Almanac 1995 Pg C-3). Griffin also attests that this strategy was more effective in certain ways than in 1994 (CQ Almanac 1995 Pg C-3). Another factor that led to the sharp drop in Clinton’s success rate is also that third year presidents have changed their focus from new legislation and initiatives to using the legislation already passed as a platform for reelection (CQ Almanac 1995 Pg C-3). Clinton was in the process of starting a reelection campaign and did not have the time he had previously to deal with congress to make deals and compromises that may have helped him get legislation passed. The change of leadership also required that the White House lobbyists forge new relationships with the new leadership and their staffs. This process took a couple of months for the lobbyists to accomplish. However, the Clinton White House had changed from being willing to work with Congress to convinced that they could not work with the new Republican Leadership. The White House saw that the Republicans were “going to march in lock step” (CQ Almanac 1995 C-3). This change from single-party domination to a divided government lead to major problems at this period in the Clinton White House, such as the such down of certain government offices because the Congress and White House could not agree on a appropriations bill. This also lead to 11 Clinton veto’s in 1995 and the congress could only overturn one, HR 1058, which was a bill to limit lawsuits by shareholders claiming securities fraud. When President George W. Bush came into office in 2001 the congress and the Presidency went through yet another time of transition, back to a single party government. In Bush’s first year as president he has an 87% success rate, which is the best since 1965 (CQ Almanac 2001, B-3). Of the 120 votes on which President Bush took a stand on he won all but 16 of them (CQ Almanac 2001, B-3) in his first year as President. President Bush enjoyed this high success rate because the congress was controlled by his party for the first time since 1954 (CQ Almanac 2001, B-3). Although, the Republicans had the majority vote in the Senate only by the assured tie-breaking vote of Vice President Dick Cheney. The Republican Party “magnified the advantage of a small numerical majority,” said Steven Schier, professor of political science at Minnesota’s Carleton College (CQ Almanac 2001 B-3). This was easiest to exploit in the House where Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R- IL) was able to get top domestic issues on the Bush agenda, such as tax-cuts, and overhauling the federal education programs. This allowed Bush to get his way early on domestic issues. President Bush’s success rate in his first year can partly be attributed to the events of September 11, and the cohesion that they brought to the congress. After September 11, Bush won eleven of twelve house votes and thirty of thirty-one votes in the senate on which he took a clear position (CQ Almanac 2001 B-3). Only for a short period did his success rate drop and this was due to James Jeffords leaving the GOP and giving control to the democrats but this only lasted until September 11. During this nine week period, twelve senate votes that took place during this period Bush lost 5, which is a 58 percent success rate (CQ Almanac 2001, B-3). Bush’s support even dropped in the house to 78 percent during the period of Memorial Day to the Terrorist attacks on September 11 (CQ Almanac 2001, B-3). In Bush’s second year in office with the Senate controlled by the Senate, he still managed to have a success rate higher than that of any president since Lyndon Johnson of 88 percent. In his second year with his party not in control of both houses of congress it was up to Bush to use both compromise and muscle along with a narrow agenda to deal with congress. He was successful because of 98 votes on which President Bush took a clear position he got his way all but twelve times. Also at the end of the year Bush found himself once again with both houses of congress controlled by the Republican Party. Kenneth R. Weinstein of the Hudson Institute said “[President Bush] learned the key lessons of calling shots carefully, and also knowing when it makes sense to take something that he may not love… He’s willing to compromise when there are larger principles at issue. (CQ Almanac 2001 B-6)” This ability to compromise when there are bigger issues to deal with is central to his high success rate in his second year in office. Stephen Hess, a senior scholar from the Brookings institute, has compared the 2002 administration of George W. Bush to that of Dwight Eisenhower. He asserts that George W. Bush like Dwight Eisenhower surrounds himself with experienced, disciplined and tight lipped aids and has a narrow agenda. Eisenhower’s success rate of 89 percent is still the record for Republican Presidents in CQ vote studies (CQ Almanac 2002 B-6). This narrow agenda of Bush’s that focused mainly on security and foreign policy was a contributing factor in his high success rate after the September 11 attack when country and party unity were rallying behind the President and his policies to protect our country from further attack. President Bush’s ability to get a 40 billion dollar spending bill passed for emergency disaster recovery and 15 billion dollars worth of aid to the Airline companies proves this unity brought on by a rallying event. Both of these presidents started their terms in office with almost record high success rates for president since the start of congressional quarterly. There first terms they both had the advantage of dealing with a single-party government. Their parties were tired of being blocked and filibustered in congress so when their party tool over the white house they were ready to get things done and passed to show the American people that they could get more done then the other party. Then both presidents had a change from a single-party government to a divided government and had to learn to deal with the opposition party. In this area, President Clinton is the more capable of the two presidents. This is where the similarities end for these Presidents. They both had there own ways of dealing with the congress and getting bills passed that worked somewhat for both of them and made them enemies as well. These Presidents are to recent to determine how history will judge them but I think that they will go down as some of the most powerful in US History.

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