By John K. Atsalis | Obstacles to planned presidential policies.
This year’s campaign literature treat the Presidency as if it is a monarchy with absolute power to implement its policies on a whim. Barack Obama has plans for tax increases, universal healthcare, and energy independence. John McCain has plans for increased tax cuts, “reformed” healthcare, as well as his version of energy independence. Each acts as if his policies will become law January 20, 2009. The reality is far different. Stripped to the core, the executive branch is responsible for only the execution of laws--it is the Congress as the legislative branch that makes law. Since the development of the modern presidency, Presidents have become de facto party leaders. This has led them to call on their party members in Congress to enact measures that they deem necessary for the country. If their party controls Congress, the President can usually depend on the passage of his initiatives. However, this is not always the case—notably President Bush’s attempts at inducing Social Security reform from a Republican Congress, as well as the objections of a Democratic Congress to FDR’s attempts to pack the Supreme Court in the 1930s. It is very likely a Democratic Congress will convene this coming January, which would obviously be an obstacle to the plans of a President McCain, but could also be a hurdle for the plans of a President Obama.
It is unfortunate that the candidates make light of the power of Congress. While Congress has been largely ineffectual in the past eight years under both parties, the Republican Congress of the 1990s developed its own policy platform and worked in opposition to President Clinton, with some success. The current Congress has tried that, but has been hampered by the small Democratic margin in the Senate, President Bush’s veto pen, and dissident blocs of Democratic representatives in the House. Parties are not monolithic organizations and Congressmen face different electoral challenges. Each party has factions within its caucus. One such example are the Blue Dog Democrats, 47 conservative-minded Democrats in the House of Representatives that often vote for fiscal responsibility, among other issues. They have successfully joined with Republicans to block or influence bills that they deem “too liberal” for their constituents. In addition, representatives from “toss-up” districts cannot always toe the party line if they seek reelection. In short, there are 535 members of Congress, not two parties.
An example of individual Congressmen or blocs of Congressmen upsetting the leadership was the initial failure on passage of the bailout bill. Here was a bill supported by not only the Democratic leadership in both chambers, but also the Republican leadership and President. Yet, 60% of the GOP and 40% of the Democrats voted nay in the House. Some voted on principle--being morally opposed to an increase in federal spending or the concept of a government bailout---while others voted to save their political skins and avoid backlash from the constituents at home. While there is a national consensus that issues such as healthcare reform, energy dependence, the War on Terror, and the enormous budget deficits of the past administration need to be solved, there is no consensus on how to do that. Even if Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Henry Reid are on the same page, that does not mean the entire Democratic establishment is. Southern and Midwestern Democrats face electoral pressures from which East & Left Coast Democrats are largely immune. This Democratic majority will face a unified Republican minority.
It may seem hypocritical to assert that the party in the majority will find itself fractured, while the party in the minority will find itself unified. However, it is not. A member of the majority who votes against the will of his constituents enables the passage of a bill put forth by the Democratic leadership. Yet, the passage of a bill does not require the support of the minority party, assuming the majority can enforce party discipline. Thus, the minority party will routinely vote nay on just about anything, in an attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility for any ills that may befall the nation. Just as Democrats sought to distance themselves from actions of President Bush and a Republican Congress, Republicans will make it clear that they oppose the deeds of a President Obama and the Democratic Congress every step of the way.
The Republicans will struggle to find a message, but it will not be hard. As the Democrats learned in 2006, it is easy to decry the actions of those in power when you have none. It is much more difficult to set policy once you have power. Democrats will no longer be able to blame the actions of past Republican Congresses, nor the vetoes of a Republican President for the failures of their agenda. With the horrifying specter of a filibuster-proof Senate upon us, Democrats must not become intoxicated with their power.
It is likely Congress will become Obama’s rubberstamp as much as it was for President Bush’s. This must not happen. Moderate and conservative Democrats should take a lesson from the Republicans and stand up to their party leadership when the legislative agenda goes off the deep-end. Moderate Republicans did not do that and met their fate in 2006. Republicans came to power in 1994 to change government, and that they did, until one-party government changed them. Democrats should take heed and exercise caution at every turn. These issues cannot be solved in a year and cannot be solved by one party. It will take a bipartisan discussion and solution. It’s up to the Democrats to extend that opportunity to the GOP.
Mr. Atsalis is a sophomore who has not yet declared a major.