Congressional Relations and "Public Relations": In the Administration of Rutherford B. Hayes

By Paul, Ezra | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Congressional Relations and "Public Relations": In the Administration of Rutherford B. Hayes


Paul, Ezra, Presidential Studies Quarterly


There has been relatively little research into efforts by nineteenth-century presidents to influence the legislative process. Yet, while institutionalized procedures and specialized staffs devoted to congressional liaison only emerged in the twentieth century (during the Eisenhower administration),(1) presidents since George Washington have sought, with varying degrees of skill and success, to advance favored legislation and to discourage congressional action in other areas. Although nineteenth-century congresses generally enjoyed considerable autonomy, a few presidents were able to use patronage, public opinion, social contacts, and the veto to achieve a measure of influence in lawmaking. The presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81) offers an opportunity to examine executive-legislative relations under particularly adverse conditions: it was an era of congressional dominance, "divided government," and unusually tense relations within the Republican Party in the aftermath of Reconstruction. The Democrats controlled the House by a margin of thirteen in the 45th Congress (1877-79) and by nineteen in the 46th; while the Republicans held a three-vote majority in the Senate in the 45th Congress, the election of 1878 turned control back to the Democrats (who had a nine-vote majority for the remainder of Hayes's term). Perhaps more important, following the prevailing Whiggish conception of the presidency as a largely passive and reactive office, presidents were expected to defer to congressional prerogative on most legislative matters and to await congressional policy initiatives.

The purpose of this article is to explore the efforts of President Hayes and his cabinet to influence members of Congress and thereby affect the content and fate of legislation. Specifically, I will argue that in an era of diminished presidential prestige and authority, and of severely limited institutional capacity, Hayes sought to employ the few tools that were at his disposal to pursue a much more active role in public policy making. Through the careful selection of candidates for federal employment, Hayes was able to exercise a measure of influence on congressmen eager to impress constituents or assist friends and relatives. Because of the wide range of positions that were under executive control in this period (extending even to the appointment of local postmasters), there were many opportunities for exchanging favors. However, each appointment involved a decision as to which "exchange" to make and thus meant incurring political costs (such as alienating a congressional patron) in addition to obtaining benefits. `While the documentary record is not adequate to permit an authoritative evaluation, it does tend to support the idea that the president viewed even fairly minor appointments as occasions to engage in cooperative contact with important members. Two other techniques for securing congressional support are examined. First, Hayes made innovative, and often highly effective, use of public sentiment on certain issues to force congressional action and to narrow the range of acceptable legislative options. Second, typically as a last resort, the president exercised or threatened to exercise the veto power to discourage the Congress from proceeding with legislation. While the veto is not regarded today as an efficient way to maximize influence, for Hayes it was often quite effective as part of a larger strategy of communication with individual members.

Eric L. Davis defines the congressional relations task as one of constructing "successive majority coalitions to support the elements of the administration's legislative program at the various stages of the legislative process."(2) This definition is a peculiarly modern one, in that it implies continuous and quite active efforts to offer exchanges with members of Congress to facilitate negotiations over the terms of legislation. From what we know of it, the Hayes administration's modest congressional relations program did not meet the standard set, by Davis's definition.

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