Two Types of Presidential Influence in Congress

Article excerpt

How does the president influence Congress? Richard E. Neustadt's classic work, Presidential Power, describes that power as "the power to persuade."(1) This article examines how the president exercises this power within the legislative process, as well as the methods that presidency scholars use to evaluate the president's role. Some presidency scholars, such as D. Roderick Kiewiet and Matthew McCubbins have suggested that public policy decision making takes place within a single policy area, allowing limited opportunity for the president to affect the outcome. My approach in this article is to suggest that a fuller understanding of a president's ability to control ap outcome can be obtained by looking at the presidential power from the perspective suggested by E. E. Schattschneider when he wrote, "The definition of alternatives is the supreme instrument of power."(2) Greater opportunity for presidential influence exists when instead of attempting to convince individuals to adopt a more or less liberal position with respect to a single policy issue, the president controls the context within which the debate occurs by defining the issue for Congress.

While both casual and sophisticated observers recognize that the president has a good deal of power in the American political system, scholarly analysis does not consistently convey that idea. The literature provides as much of a compelling case for presidential power circumscribed by Congress as for a presidential power worthy of the label "imperial." A marked discrepancy exists in the conclusions reached by quantitative and qualitative research with respect to the question: How influential is the American president in the legislative sphere? The quantitative literature finds that the president exercises influence in the legislative process only "at the margins"(3) or under certain circumstances,(4) while the qualitative literature paints a different picture. Clinton Rossiter and Arthur Schlesinger argue that the president is a key figure in the legislative process.(5) To explain these discrepancies, this article examines the nature of presidential influence and the study of that influence. How does the president exercise influence in Congress? How can presidential influence be identified? This article looks at the juxtaposed conclusions reached in the literature and argues that the quantitative literature reaches its counterintuitive conclusions because it overlooks a very potent type of influence--the definition of alternatives or "heresthetical" influence.(6)

Discrepancies in the Literature

The majority of quantitative presidential influence literature presents a surprising picture of the president operating "at the margins" of the legislative process. D. Roderick Kiewiet and Mathew McCubbins, in their book The Logic of Delegation, examine the appropriations process to evaluate how influential a player the president is. Like much of the presidential influence literature, they conclude that the president is influential only under certain conditions. A president is likely to have influence over the budgetary process if he seeks to appropriate less than Congress. On the other hand, if the president desires more appropriation than Congress, he will have little control over the outcome.(7) While Anita Pritchard argues that presidential influence can be an important part of the legislative process, her data point to the Kiewiet and McCubbins qualification--under certain circumstances. Pritchard finds that the president is able to influence legislative decision making under certain conditions, such as when he initiates a policy or when the policy area is viewed as the president's responsibility (i.e., foreign affairs).(8)

Similarly, George C. Edwards finds presidential influence in Congress to exist only At the Margins. Presidents exert only minimal influence in the legislative arena. Moreover, the president can do little to increase his influence. …