The Bigger Picture
Published on May 14th in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Although President Obama fumbled the handoff of his economic stimulus package to House Democrats, the Republican leaders in Congress were unable to score any points and President Obama eventually succeeded in pushing this package over the goal line. But I also suspect the President learned a valuable lesson here which may serve him well in future contests with legislators on the Capitol Hill playing field.
I should also note that President Obama was handicapped entered his first big contest with Congress since his Presidential predecessor, King Bush, had spent eight years using executive orders, signing statements and claims of executive privilege to bypass Congress. Given these circumstances, it was to be expected that Congress would try to assert itself by first attempting to push America’s new young President around a bit before it agreed to pass the legislation he needed to address America’s economic ills.
President Obama has always been a quick study as well as a student of history so he might do well to take some cues from another former President who held a masters degree in the art of bending Congress to his will. While he isn’t one of America’s most revered Presidents, former Democratic President Lyndon Johnson was probably America’s most successful President in terms of getting legislation through Congress.
After Johnson won the 1964 election in one of the biggest electoral landslides in presidential history, he began his first one hundred days with a filibuster proof two thirds majority of Democrats in both chambers of Congress. It was during President Johnson’s second hundred days that Congress passed all of Johnson’s landmark Great Society legislation including federal education aid, the Voting Rights Act and Medicare. In all, President Johnson saw 207 significant pieces of legislation passed while he was in office, a record of legislative achievement that no other President has or is ever likely to achieve.
While Obama doesn’t have the same advantages Johnson had in 1965, several factors that President Obama should nonetheless consider explain why President Johnson was more successful than other US Presidents in getting Congress to do his bidding.
First of all, even though President Obama has fewer moderate Republicans he can seek support from as well as much smaller majorities in Congress than Johnson had, one of the keys to President Johnson’s legislative success was that he never took anything for granted. Despite his overwhelming majorities in Congress, Johnson always anticipated a tough battle on every single bill, explaining to a White House aide that “I’ve watched the Congress from either the inside or the outside for more than 40 years, and I’ve never seen a Congress that didn’t eventually take the measure of the president it was dealing with.”
While President Obama also doesn’t have the 11 years of House and 12 years of Senate experience or the consequent long time relationships with Congressional leaders that Johnson had, he has assembled a White House staff that has comparable amounts of experience as well as long standing relationships with many Congressional leaders. They can help President Obama forge the ties and cut the deals with Congressional leaders that will be needed if Obama wants to see his other major legislative proposals dealing with healthcare, investments in education and environmental regulation turned into laws.
But another advantage President Johnson had that President Obama will not be able to use as freely when he is seeking Congressional support, is trading pork barrel grants for votes on key pieces of legislation. This long standing practice has come under increasing scrutiny from the news media and watchdog groups in recent years and is now considered unsavory political fare by many voters and quite a few politicians. Still, the fact that the economic stimulus package contained certain “special appropriations” and the 2009 federal budget appropriation bill contained hundreds of pork barrel “earmarks”, tells me that this is still a tool President Obama can use, but only when he really has to.
But President Jonson was also a man who wasn’t afraid to wield the stick with his fellow Democrats in Congress if his “pork barrel” carrots were not getting the job done. President Johnson wasn’t timid about voicing his feelings to a legislator who didn’t vote for one of his bills and had a reputation as a man you didn’t want to cross. One Democratic Senator, Frank Church, tried to justify and explain his reasons for voting against one of Johnson’s bills by telling Johnson that a well known columnist, Walter Lippmann, shared his view. Johnson responded saying: “Frank, next time you want a dam (built) in Idaho, you call Walter Lippmann and let him put it (federal financing) through.”
While it is still too soon in President Obama’s first term for him to be taking recalcitrant legislators to the woodshed like Johnson did, he must nonetheless be prepared to do so when the time comes lest he be perceived by members of Congress as weak. In the meantime though, President Obama has already demonstrated that he isn’t above using one of President Johnson’s other favourite tactics; the personal touch.
President Johnson always treated every member of Congress as if he or she was the center of the universe and insisted that his staffers return any representative’s or senator’s telephone call within “10 minutes or else.” Obama has made similar demands of his staff and like Johnson, has already spent many hours showering Congress with attention by going to Capitol Hill to seek their input for his legislation and working the phones with key Democrats and Republicans. Obama’s acquiescence to special earmarks as a part of his economic stimulus package is also sign that he is a pragmatist rather than an idealist when it comes to getting his legislative priorities addressed.
If Obama can be half as successful as Johnson was in his second hundred days, then I foresee a bright future for President Obama and the Democratic Party. So next week I’ll discuss the much dimmer future I see for my fellow Republicans.